Writing Through Emotions, a Guest Post by Morton S. Gray, author of The Girl on the Beach

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I’ve met lovely Morton S. Gray, author of The Girl on the Beach, and so I’m delighted to be hosting a guest post from her today about emotions in writing. In common with many, neither of us had a good 2016 and I was interested how this might affect a writer after I blogged about its effects on me as a reader here. Morton explains in a fascinating guest post below.

The Girl on the Beach was published by Choc-Lit on 24th January 2017 and is available for purchase here.

The Girl on the Beach

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Who is Harry Dixon?

When Ellie Golden meets Harry Dixon, she can’t help but feel she recognises him from somewhere. But when she finally realises who he is, she can’t believe it – because the man she met on the beach all those years before wasn’t called Harry Dixon. And, what’s more, that man is dead.

For a woman trying to outrun her troubled past and protect her son, Harry’s presence is deeply unsettling – and even more disconcerting than coming face to face with a dead man, is the fact that Harry seems to have no recollection of ever having met Ellie before. At least that’s what he says …

But perhaps Harry isn’t the person Ellie should be worried about. Because there’s a far more dangerous figure from the past lurking just outside of the new life she has built for herself, biding his time, just waiting to strike.

Writing Through Emotions

A Guest Post by Morton S. Gray

How does what is happening in a writer’s life affect what they write? This was the question posed by Linda Hill when she suggested I write a guest post for her blog.

Life experiences inevitably feed your writing. I’m a writer who always carries a notebook. My car broke down and I sat waiting for the breakdown company writing about how I felt to be late for my appointment, how I felt about my car and how important driving was in my life and even about the relief when the AA man turned up. We won’t talk about the little character sketch I wrote about the man himself!

I’m the writer sitting in my surgical gown and stockings waiting to go down to the operating theatre whilst writing about how it felt when my husband walked back down the corridor after dropping me off for my operation, how my mind was reacting to impending surgery and about how I intended to help myself recover.

You may have guessed from the above that I’m a writer through and through and all emotion and experience in my life can be, and often is, used in a story. It is undoubtedly therapeutic to write about how you feel, even when faced with scary things, as it helps to rationalise those feelings and even make them seem one step removed from yourself. I also believe that exploring feelings at the time they occur allows you to write about them more convincingly for your characters when they face equivalent situations. I write books with a strong romantic element, even though they are usually not purely about the romance, manuscripts demand highs and lows of feeling and emotion. It is helpful if I can consult my many notebooks to help me to achieve this.

2016 was a difficult year for many people, myself and Linda included. I’m normally capable of writing through anything, but the stresses of 2016 built to such a level that even I struggled.

Linda has recently blogged about her awful year. Mine started a tremendous high, shortlisting for the Choc Lit Publishing’s Search for a Star competition in February and finding out I’d won in March. This was the culmination of many years work and a dream come true. I’d been writing seriously for eight years, been on the Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers’ Scheme since 2012 and always admired the books published by independent publisher Choc Lit. The winning novel, now called The Girl on the Beach, is out as an e-book on 24 January 2017.

Funny how when you achieve a dream, you imagine everything will be perfect from then on, but of course, life doesn’t work like that. My win was closely followed by my mother suffering a mini-stroke, a dustbin lorry colliding with my house and car, various health problems of my own and my eldest son splitting with his girlfriend of eight years and moving back home. I’m normally quite resilient, but I think the juxtaposition of these, and other things I haven’t mentioned here, floored me. It wasn’t the events in themselves, but the anxieties and emotions associated with them. Despite all of this, I managed to keep up with the publishers edits for my debut novel, but only just…

I’m fighting back and, thankfully, 2017 already feels more positive. I’ve already taken revenge on the dustbin lorry, by writing it into one of my novels, out of the context of my own problems, but I know why it is there and I sure know the emotions associated with it, as they are all in my notebook!

Wishing everyone a great 2017, Linda especially, and hoping that the birth of my debut novel goes smoothly.

(And I echo Morton’s wishes and hope The Girl on the Beach is a huge success.)

About Morton S. Gray

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Morton lives with her husband, two sons and Lily, the tiny white dog, in Worcestershire, U.K.

She has been reading and writing fiction for as long as she can remember, penning her first attempt at a novel aged fourteen, the plot of which closely resembled an Errol Flynn film. As with many authors, life got in the way of writing for many years until she won a short story competition in 2006 and the spark was well and truly reignited.

She studied creative writing with the Open College of the Arts and joined the Romantic Novelists’ New Writers’ Scheme in 2012.

After shortlisting in several first chapter competitions, she won The Choc Lit Publishing Search for a Star competition in 2016 with her novel The Girl on the Beach. This debut novel is published on 24 January 2017. The story follows a woman with a troubled past as she tries to unravel the mystery surrounding her son’s headteacher, Harry Dixon.

Previous ‘incarnations’ were in committee services, staff development and training. Morton has a Business Studies degree and is a fully qualified Clinical Hypnotherapist and Reiki Master. She also has diplomas in Tuina Acupressure Massage and Energy Field Therapy.

She enjoys crafts, history and loves tracing family trees. Having a hunger for learning new things is a bonus for the research behind her books.

You can follow Morton on Twitter, find her on Facebook and visit her website.

From Fiction to Fact, a Guest Post by Carol Browne, author of Being Krystyna

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When I discovered Carol Browne, author of Being Krstyna, lives only three miles away from me and has written about an inhabitant in my nearest town, Peterborough, I had to invite her onto Linda’s Book Bag, especially as today is Holocaust Memorial Day and Being Krystyna is related to that very subject.

Being Krystyna was published by Dillie Books on 11th November 2016 and is available for purchase in e-book here.

Being Krystyna

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In 2012 when young Polish immigrant Agnieszka visits fellow countrywoman Krystyna in a Peterborough care home for the first time, she thinks it a simple act of kindness. However, the meeting proves to be the beginning of a life-changing experience.

Krystyna’s stories about the past are not memories of the good old days but recollections of war-ravaged Europe: The Warsaw Ghetto, Pawiak Prison, Ravensbrück Concentration Camp, and a death march to freedom.

The losses and ordeals Krystyna suffered and what she had to do to survive are horrors Agnieszka must confront when she volunteers to be Krystyna’s biographer.

Will Agnieszka be able to keep her promise to tell her story, and, in this harrowing memoir of survival, what is the message for us today?

From Fiction to Fact

A Guest Post by Carol Browne

When I volunteered to write the life story of local woman, Krystyna Porsz, I had no idea how to approach it. I am a fiction writer. I make things up. Putting a true story down on paper was a daunting prospect and I wasn’t sure I would do it justice. Although I had the facts of Krystyna’s life, they amounted to a few sheets of A4 paper—information Krystyna’s son had been able to jot down over the years when his mother had talked about her past—but  there was hardly enough material for a book. So I had to build a structure to hang those facts on, very much like creating a plot for a work of fiction. A friend of mine, Agnieszka, had visited Krystyna in her Peterborough care home on two occasions and I used her as a narrative device, so we see the story unfold through her eyes. This gave me much more opportunity to pad out the text while still being true to the available facts. I believe it also draws in the reader as the relationship between these two Polish women develops. Plus, it anchors the narrative in the present, making the contrast between that and the past even more compelling.

Doing research for the book was time consuming but very straightforward. There is a wealth of information in books and online. I read as much as I could to get a general overview of wartime Europe and also made sure that the dates of various events mentioned in the book were correct. When I read the personal accounts of women who had survived the death camps, I could see there were certain similarities and I could use these to add substance to the narrative in places where Krystyna’s own story was lacking in details. For example, Krystyna mentioned the awful roll calls the women endured when they were forced to stand outside for hours on freezing winter evenings. While my experience as a fiction writer helped me with scene setting to add further weight to Krystyna’s own description of these ordeals, I was also able to use the accounts of other survivors to add more detail to what was in the notes. Every account I read had similar horrors to report: women were starving and freezing cold, they had dysentery, and they were randomly beaten for no reason.

While the research was easy, embedding the structure of the narrative into it was not. It all had to flow and seem natural while everything that Krystyna had endured needed to be truthfully and sensitively told and in such a way that the reader would be able to follow the timeline. I used her words whenever I could. In fact I also used those she spoke when I visited her myself. I wanted the book to be as authentic as possible. In the end, I believe it worked really well and the underlying message of the story emerged naturally by the time I reached the conclusion of the book. Sadly, this message remains relevant today because the racism, intolerance and hatred that allowed the Nazis to persecute millions of people are still with us.

About Carol Browne

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Born in Stafford in the UK, Carol was raised in Crewe, Cheshire, which she thinks of as her home town. Interested in reading and writing at an early age, Carol pursued her passions at Nottingham University and was awarded an honours degree in English Language and Literature. Now living and working in the Cambridgeshire countryside, Carol usually writes fiction and is a contracted author at Burning Willow Press. Being Krystyna, published by Dilliebooks on 11th November 2016, is her first non-fiction book.

You can find Carol on Facebook, can follow Carol on Twitter and visit her website.

An Interview with Liz Trenow, author of The Silk Weaver

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I love historical fiction so I’m delighted to be part of the launch celebrations for The SilkWeaver by Liz Trenow.  The Silk Weaver is published today, 26th January 2017, by Pan Macmillan and is available for purchase in ebook and paperback by following the links here.

The Silk Weaver

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A novel of illicit romance set against the world of the silk trade in London

Anna Butterfield moves from her Suffolk country home to her uncle’s house in London, to be introduced to society. A chance encounter with a local silk weaver, French immigrant Henri, throws her from her privileged upbringing to the darker, dangerous world of London’s silk trade. Henri is working on his ‘master piece’ to make his name as a master silk weaver; Anna, meanwhile, is struggling against the constraints of her family and longing to become an artist. Henri realizes that Anna’s designs could lift his work above the ordinary, and give them both an opportunity for freedom…

This is a charming story of illicit romance, set against the world of the burgeoning silk trade in eighteenth-century Spitalfields – a time of religious persecution, mass migration, racial tension and wage riots, and very different ideas of what was considered ‘proper’ for women.

An Interview with Liz Trenow

Welcome to Linda’s Book Bag Liz. Congratulations on your fourth book The Silk Weaver that is published today. Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions on my blog about your writing.

Firstly, please could you tell me a little about yourself?

I worked as a journalist with regional and national newspapers and on BBC radio and television news, before turning my hand to fiction rather late in life! I was born and brought up in Sudbury, Suffolk next to the mill which is the oldest family-owned silk weaving company in Britain and one of just three still operating today. I still live in East Anglia with my artist husband, we have two grown up daughters and, just this year, a granddaughter!

My first three books have also been published in a number of other countries and in translation: The Last Telegram, The Forgotten Seamstress (a New York Times bestseller) and The Poppy Factory.

Without spoiling the plot, please could you tell us a bit about The Silk Weaver?

When her mother dies, eighteen year old Anna is sent from her native Suffolk to live with her aunt and uncle, a successful silk merchant, in Spitalfields, London so she can marry well to support her ageing father and disabled sister. She meets Henri, a Huguenot weaver who comes to her rescue when she first arrives in London. But she cannot socialise with him because he is of the wrong class.

At the turn of the 18th century Spitalfields was a social and political melting pot into which thousands of Huguenot Protestants had arrived, fleeing religious persecution in France. Henri needs an original and eye-catching design for his ‘master piece’, a showcase fabric which will earn him the title of Master Weaver so he can set up in business on his own. He is intrigued by Anna’s striking flower paintings and asks if he can use them for his design.

Then disaster strikes: Henri is caught up in a riot by weavers protesting against low wages. He is arrested and imprisoned, and must prove his innocence to avoid the death penalty.

I know you come from a family where the silk industry has been important.  How has writing about that industry impacted on your appreciation of your own heritage?

My research has definitely made me feel more connected to my ancestors and my family’s history, as well as giving me a greater appreciation of the remarkable fabrics they have created all these hundreds of years – as I said in The Last Telegram, it really is a kind of alchemy, turning the raw silk into those beautiful, shimmering, sumptuous designs.

But although I now know a little more about how my ancestors lived, their personal lives and personalities are still a mystery. What I do know is that like many craftspeople of the time they were religious non-conformists, very hard-working and plain living. But I think it was this practical, no nonsense approach that helped the company survive for so many generations. As my family’s company 300th anniversary I am very proud to be connected with that heritage.

You recorded interviews with your parents that provided some stimulus for writing The Silk Weaver too. How important do you think oral narrative is for writers?

I don’t think I can overstate how important that oral narrative has been for me, both on a personal level and as an author. I am always exhorting friends to talk to their loved ones and if possible to record them, before it is too late. Sometimes I just open the sound files and listen to my parents talking. Even though they died some years ago now, it brings them right back to me. And as a writer, the things they mentioned have given me such a rich seam of material to draw on. There are several other stories yet to be told!

How do you go about researching detail and ensuring your books are realistic?

Reading factual books and relevant fiction, visiting places, watching tv programmes and films. I love going to places like the British Library and the Victoria & Albert Museum to research.

Women are at the heart of your narratives. How difficult is it to research their stories when much of history is male dominated?

That’s a very interesting question and of course it is much harder researching the stories of women. You can only make assumptions about their lives from the evidence you can gather: what their fathers did and where they were born, what their husbands did, how many children they had, what street they lived in and what was happening in the broader social scene. If you’re lucky, you might have a diary or letters, but this is unusual. Recently, historians like Lucy Worsley and Amanda Vickery have thrown important light on the lives of Georgian women and I found their books invaluable.

To what extent has your background in non-fiction writing helped or hindered your fiction writing?

Ha, another interesting question. Journalism is very different from fiction writing. What being a journalist has meant is that I have no fear of a blank page or of deadlines, I feel quite comfortable with positive criticism and have a love of language and a facility with words and grammar. What I have had to learn (and am still learning) is how to allow my creative brain to work, to allow breadth in my descriptions, my characters and the way their emotional lives develop.

Had you been alive in Anna’s era of The Silk Weaver, how do you think you would have fared?

The lives of working class women were very hard, so that’s a no go. Equally I’d probably have been very bored as a society lady with little to do. I’d have loved the frocks, but that’s about all.

I understand that you use photographs and magazine clippings to help stimulate your writing. Please could you tell us more about how you created the characters of Anna and Henri in The Silk Weaver?

I always try to visualise characters beforehand, poring through Pinterest and other web sources for inspiration. I also look at paintings of the time; happily my artist husband has a library of art books. But to be honest the real characterisation and visualisation only really begins once I start to write and the voices (spoken and internal) come into my head. I am not a disciplined planner, but I do use photos, post-its and other printed things, pinned to my whiteboard. My daughters often add their own random comments which make me laugh!

When did you first realise you were going to be a writer?

When I got ten out of ten for a short story, aged 10. The teacher asked me to read it out and everyone clapped!

If you hadn’t become an author, what would you have done instead as a creative outlet?

I would love to have been a musician. Singing in choirs is my other creative outlet.

What are your writing routines and where do you do most of your writing?

I always write in my study, at home. I try to write for several hours each day when my imaginative brain is fresh, until I have done around 1,000 words.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to read?

Fiction, mostly, often historical. The only fiction I don’t really get is fantasy and sci-fi.

The Silk Weaver has a very sumptuous cover. How did that image come about and what were you hoping to convey (without spoiling the plot please!)?

Covers are always initiated by the publisher, based on the plot but with a very clear eye on what will make the book leap off the shelves, but they always consult the author and will make changes to things they really disagree with. I love the cover of The Silk Weaver not only because it is beautiful and eye-catching but also because it is historically accurate and really evokes the way that Anna feels trapped by societal expectations.

If you could choose to be a character from The Silk Weaver, who would you be and why?

After Anna, obviously, then Miss Charlotte. She’s had a tough life but she’s found a way of living independently.

If you had 15 words to persuade a reader that The Silk Weaver should be their next read, what would you say?

Think Romeo and Juliet in a sumptuous silk setting and no tragic ending.

Thank you so much for your time in answering my questions.

It’s been a pleasure.

About Liz Trenow

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Liz Trenow is the author of three previous historical novels: The Last Telegram, The Forgotten Seamstress and The Poppy Factory. Liz’s family have been silk weavers for nearly three hundred years, and she grew up in the house next to the mill in Suffolk, England, which still operates today, weaving for top-end fashion houses and royal commissions. This unique history inspired her first two novels, and this, her fourth novel.

Liz is a former journalist who spent fifteen years on regional and national newspapers, and on BBC radio and television news, before turning her hand to fiction. She lives in East Anglia, UK, with her artist husband, and they have two grown-up daughter.

You can visit Liz’s website, find her on Facebook and follow Liz on Twitter.

There’s more with these other bloggers too:

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Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

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My enormous thanks to Poppy North at Penguin Random House for a copy of Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller in return for an honest review. Swimming Lessons is published by Fig Tree, an imprint of Penguin Books, today 26th January 2017 and is available for purchase here.

Not only am I reviewing Swimming Lessons, but I am delighted to have the opportunity to interview Claire Fuller about her writing too.

Swimming Lessons

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‘Gil Coleman looked down from the window and saw his dead wife standing on the pavement below.’

Gil’s wife, Ingrid has been missing, presumed drowned, for twelve years.

A possible sighting brings their children, Nan and Flora, home. Together they begin to confront the mystery of their mother. Is Ingrid dead? Or did she leave? And do the letters hidden within Gil’s books hold the answer to the truth behind his marriage, a truth hidden from everyone including his own children?

An Interview with Claire Fuller

Welcome to Linda’s Book Bag Claire. Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions on my blog about your writing and your latest book Swimming Lessons in particular. Firstly, please could you tell me a little about yourself?

Thanks so much for inviting me! I’ve been writing short stories and novels for about ten years now. I never intended to be a writer. I did my first degree in fine art (sculpture), and then worked in marketing for many years. I found myself writing short stories almost by accident, and then decided to do an MA in creative writing, and my first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days came out of that.

Without spoiling the plot, please could you tell us a bit about Swimming Lessons?

Swimming Lessons is the story of Ingrid Coleman who writes letters to her husband about their marriage, but instead of giving them to him, she hides them in the thousands of books he’s collected for their marginalia and the things previous readers have left behind. After Ingrid has written her last letter she disappears from a Dorset beach. Twelve years later, her daughters, Nan and Flora return home to care for their father. Flora still believes that her mother could be alive and starts asking questions without realising that the answers are hidden in the books that surround her.

When did you first realise you were going to be a writer?

Not until ten years ago when I was forty. And it wasn’t so much that I was going to be a writer, but that I was doing some writing. I still had a full-time job in marketing and children at home. It was some time after my first book sold to Penguin and to several other publishers around the world that I decided to take the leap and write full time. I still can’t quite believe that this is my job.

You studied for an MA in Creative and Critical Writing. How has this influenced your writing?

I’d only written a handful of short stories before I went on my MA, so it’s hard to say whether the MA changed my writing. People sometimes say they can spot a writer who has been on a creative writing MA, but that isn’t my experience, especially since we weren’t taught to write in any particular way. I knew I wanted to write literary fiction before I went on it because that’s the kind of fiction I read. The best thing I got from the course (amongst many great things) was meeting other writers and forming a critiquing group. Five years on, we’re still meeting every month.

The Swimming Lessons cover suggests water, motion and light and shade to me. How did that image come about and what were you hoping to convey (without spoiling the plot please!)?

The cover was designed by the Art Director at my US publisher, Tin House. There’s an article about it on my blog here. I loved it as soon as I saw it, and luckily when it was shown to my publishers in other countries they decided to use it too – although most times with a slight tweak. I think it could be Ingrid or Flora on the cover, and they could be dominating the water, since the head is a different, vibrant colour, or they could be drowning, since the head is under the top of the sea. Either way I think it’s an arresting image.

I find your prose mesmerising. How conscious of style are you as you write and how much do you edit?

I’m not at all conscious of my writing style in my first draft. I just write, but I do edit a bit as I go along and then when I’ve finished the first draft of a novel (after about a year and a half), then I edit and edit and edit. I’m trying to write in a way that flows, maybe like poetry (although I don’t write it) – where every word and its position in a sentence has been considered. Is it the right word? Is it in the right place? I love this part of the work; the agonising bit is getting the first draft down when I don’t know what’s going to happen next.

I also think your writing is very poetic. Do you ever write poetry?

I’ve answered this above!

There’s an almost allegorical, fairy tale element to your writing. How has this come about?

Again, if this is the case, it isn’t conscious. I knew the major fairy tales as a child, but I don’t remember being particularly drawn to them. And allegory…perhaps this appears in my books because of the layers I try to put in; it’s not so much that I believe that extra meaning can be read into things in real life, but that it makes for a more complex read.

Swimming Lessons has so many literary references that I loved. How easy was it to find the right books in which to hide Ingrid’s letters?

Some of them came very easily because they are books I know and love, while others took more research, and I certainly haven’t read them all. The idea for Ingrid to hide her letters in Gil’s books came about accidentally. In the prologue of Swimming Lessons Gil finds a letter in the novel, Who Was Changed and Who was Dead by Barbara Comyns. I love this book and I chose it without really thinking, but then considering what happens – that Ingrid disappears and we don’t know how or why – it seemed appropriate, and I decided to continue with her hiding the letters inside Gil’s books. Small Dreams of A Scorpion by Spike Milligan, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson for example, are books I know well and love, while others such as Hand Crocheted Creations for the Home: Bedspreads, Luncheon Sets, Scarfs, Chair Sets by Bernhard Ullmann isn’t a book I own and probably won’t ever read, but was appropriate to the subject of Ingrid’s letter. I had a lot of fun choosing them.

You’re an artist as well as a writer. How much does this impact on your writing as I find your descriptions very visual?

It’s hard to say, because I only know the way I think, and the way I write, but lots of people have said they find my descriptions very visual, so perhaps the two are linked. I sometimes will draw a map of a location or a plan of the house my characters live in, but I don’t draw their faces or scenes from the book. However, when I’m writing a scene, the picture of it – the movements of the characters and the space they inhabit does roll out in my mind like a piece of film.

Gil made me think of Jay Gatsby. To what extent do you feel the reader should sympathise with Gil or blame him for the events in the story?

That’s interesting, although I think Gil is much more difficult character to like. I do believe that things like this are up to the reader to decide – there isn’t a right or a wrong way of seeing him. But the feedback I’ve had from early readers is that they can understand why Ingrid falls in love with Gil, but gradually they come to dislike him intensely, with some feeling a little sympathy return when he is old. I also think that the characters are responsible for their own actions and how these actions affect others. Gil’s behaviour is very bad, but Ingrid was warned about him by Jonathan and chose to ignore his advice. She could have changed her life and those of her daughters at an earlier point than when she decided to finally do so, but who knows whether the outcome would have been better for their daughters?

(I think you might have summed up my own experience of reading Swimming Lessons there!)

In both Our Endless Numbered Days and Swimming Lessons you explore family secrets and frailties. What draws you to these themes and how far do you think those elements are an essential part of the human condition?

I’m probably drawn to them because those themes are nearly universal. Most of us have families, and most of those families will have secrets, or at least things that go unsaid. And none of us are completely resilient. Stories that cover these themes can allow the reader to put themselves in the situation and think, what would I do?

You won the prestigious Desmond Elliott Prize for Our Endless Numbered Days. How was that experience?

It was so unexpected. Also on the shortlist were Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, and A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray, both wonderful books. The awards ceremony was on the hottest day in London in 2015, and my husband and I crazily came back from the middle of our holiday in Sweden for just one night. I honestly didn’t know that Our Endless Numbered Days was going to win until Louise Doughty made the announcement at the ceremony, so it was certainly worth coming back for.

(Well congratulations again, Claire.)

And finally Claire, when you’re not writing, what do you like to read?

I read a lot, at least a book a week. I regard it as part of my writing work – not just to read books for research, although I do that too, but to read novels. I prefer contemporary literary fiction of all sorts. The best books are those that make me pause and think. These will often help obscurely with whatever I’m writing. I’m not sure how the process works, but a really wonderful book by someone else will fire off all sorts of ideas, and so I do a lot of writing in the margins (like Gil in Swimming Lessons). The last book where this happened was actually non-fiction: The Lonely City by Olivia Laing, which I’d really recommend.

My Review of Swimming Lessons

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Gil, Flora’s Father, has had an accident having seen his dead wife, and when Flora rushes home to be with him events from the past will reverberate and affect all their lives.

I so loved Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller (reviewed here) that I couldn’t wait to read her next book. Swimming Lessons is, in my opinion, even better.

Everything about Swimming Lessons fits its themes so perfectly, from the light and shade watery image of the cover to the eloquent, fluid and moving prose within its pages. Claire Fuller’s attention to detail is so assiduous and so erudite that I’m sure, as a reader, I haven’t appreciated enough some of the elements that fit the watery distortions and refractions of memory she explores. The writing is stunning. I loved, for example, the concept of smell as a colour and knew instantly exactly what the author meant when she employed this technique.

The construction of the novel is fabulous. Whilst there is actually little present day chronological plot, there are so many wonderful layers to the experiences related that the reader is drawn in completely. At times I felt as if I was holding my breath under water, especially in those passages in the letters written in the first person by Ingrid, because I didn’t want to spoil the intensity and atmosphere of reading. The Prologue and Epilogue profoundly affect the novel and I experienced an overwhelming feeling of poignancy reading them.

I loved the references to literature through Ingrid’s letters and the Gatsbyesque nature of Gil’s personality with his D H Lawrence style of writing. Some of the books mentioned I knew, and understood the connection to Claire Fuller’s narrative, and some I didn’t, but when this happened it didn’t affect my enjoyment at all – as a reader I have complete faith in the author so that Swimming Lessons felt natural and wonderful to read. There’s such skill in writing intricate, graceful prose and then making the reader gasp with a pared down sentence that moves on the plot with bang and Claire Fuller understands exactly how to employ this technique.  I found the idea of tucking Ingrid’s letters into Gil’s books so tantalising and was delighted to find an item in my copy of Swimming Lessons too.

Swimming Lessons is essentially an exploration of flawed humanity through family relationships, marriage, sibling rivalry, grief and love and (literally in a way – read the book to see why!) skeletons in the cupboard. I found it hard to like Gil but couldn’t help myself feeling overwhelming sadness for him too. He, like Flora, Ingrid and Nan was so human and real to me I felt as if I were reading about people from my own life whom I knew really well.

Swimming Lessons is beautifully written, melancholy and moving. I thought it was perfect writing personified and I urge you to read it.

About Claire Fuller

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Claire Fuller was born in Oxfordshire, England, in 1967. She gained a degree in sculpture from Winchester School of Art, but went on to have a long career in marketing and didn’t start writing until she was forty. Swimming Lessons is her second novel. Her first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, won the Desmond Elliott Prize. She has an MA in Creative and Critical Writing from the University of Winchester and lives in Hampshire with her husband and two children.

You can follow Claire on Twitter and visit her blog.

An Interview with John Marrs, author of The One

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I’m thrilled to be interviewing John Marrs, author of The One as part of the launch celebrations. Previously titled A Thousand Small Explosions, The One is published by Del Rey, an imprint of Ebury, in e-book tomorrow 26th January 2017 and in paperback on 4th May 2017 and is available for pre-order here.

I was lucky enough to receive an early reader copy of The One and you can read my review here.

The One

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How far would you go to find THE ONE?

One simple mouth swab is all it takes.

One tiny DNA test to find your perfect partner – the one you’re genetically made for.

A decade after scientists discover everyone has a gene they share with just one person, millions have taken the test, desperate to find true love.

Now, five more people take the test. But even soul mates have secrets. And some are more shocking – and deadlier – than others…

An Interview with John Marrs

Hi John. Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions on my blog about your writing and The One in particular. Firstly, please could you tell me a little about yourself?

Hi Linda, and thanks for having me! I’m 46, I live in Northamptonshire and work in London and my day job is working as a freelance journalist. Most of the time I am based at Express Newspapers and there, I write for publications including the Daily Express’ S Magazine and Saturday Magazine, OK! Magazine and the Star’s TV Extra. Elsewhere I write for publications like GT, Total Film and Guardian’s The Guide. Most of the people I interview are celebrities in the fields of television and music. I live with my partner, also called John (just to confuse matters) and our dog Oscar, in a small village with no shops, two pubs and a country park right on our doorstep.

(Sounds like the village I grew up in!)

And tell us a bit about The One (without giving away the plot of course).

It’s set in the present, when science has discovered a way of finding your perfect match by testing your DNA. But please don’t think it’s a sci-fi book as it’s much more about relationships. Every one of us has one Match out there and they are the person you are destined to be with. But they could be any age, religion, sexuality or live anywhere in the world. The One follows five people who discover who their Matches are, and they aren’t quite what they had in mind.

I love the cover to The One. It hints at DNA, blood and lipstick and a less than perfect heart! How did that image come about and what were you hoping to convey (without spoiling the plot please!)?

Thanks but alas, I can take no credit for this. The book was originally self-published last year under the title A Thousand Small Explosions and had a very different cover. Penguin Random House label Del Rey discovered the book, asked if I’d consider letting them taking it on, and six months later, it has a new title and a new cover, both of which I absolutely love. The cover with the smeared bloody heart and DNA code in the background sums the theme up quite wonderfully.

I know you’ve been a journalist for a long time. When did you first realise you were going to write for a living?

When I realised I wasn’t very good at anything else! I was okay at school but awful at exams – I failed my Maths O-level and then GCSE four times! English Language and Literature were my favourite subjects by far so I stuck with writing and ended up working on a local newspaper when I finished my A-Levels. I worked on several more over the years before gravitating towards London and starting work on the News Of The World’s Sunday Magazine, interviewing – and not phone hacking! – celebrities for a living.

(That makes me feel so much better – took me three goes to get a C at O’Level maths!)

You’ve interviewed several celebrities in your journalistic career. How far has that world seeped into The One and into Ellie’s character in particular?

As a journalist I know what I’d want from an interview with her, if she existed in the real world. And I understand that after being burned in the past, she wouldn’t want to give much away. She would see journalists as untrustworthy and out to get a good angle at her expense. So I used my knowledge in choosing which publications she’d talk to and the subjects she wouldn’t be willing to talk about with them. Towards the end of her story, I could predict the media reaction to her predicament and which publications would be on her side and which would tear her to shreds. I do feel a little bad in giving my fellow journalists a short shrift in this novel though…

How different do you find fiction writing to non-fiction writing, or are there more similarities than we might think?

I write for mainstream publications. It’s my job to get the best out of an interview subject and an angle the reader will find interesting. So I’ll always think of my audience. Likewise with fiction writing, I know who I am aiming my stories at so I’ll making them relatively easy to access with relatable characters and hopefully throw in a few twists and turns in there to wrong foot the readers. The latter, I can’t do with my non-fiction work or I’ll likely get sued…

All your novels seem to have identity as a theme. Why has this concept so attracted you?

Wow, what an interesting question as it’s something I have never actually thought about! But yes, you are right. Subconsciously that’s exactly what I have done. I guess we all question ourselves as we get older – from have we accomplished what we had hoped to by a certain age to are we happy right now? My characters have yet to find out who they are and I like to take them (and the reader) on a journey to discover if they are where they ought to be.

How keen would you be to use your DNA to find a partner?

If I was single I would probably take the test. But by the time you read this, I’ll have been married for four months and am very sure I have found my Match.

(Oh, congratulations to you both x)

Travel has impacted on your writing too. If you could go anywhere in the world to research a book, where would you choose and why?

I’d like to explore more of South of America and Eastern Europe. I’d also like to see more of some of the lesser known small towns and cities in the US as they could make interesting backdrops for future stories that are currently rattling around my head.

How did you manage the different narrative strands in The One? I wondered whether you wrote each chapter consecutively, or each person’s story first and then ordered them later or planned the whole thing or…?

I can’t do anything methodically, from washing a car to panting a wall to writing a book. So it depended on what mood I was in that day as to whose story I concentrated on. I can’t even remember which character I finished writing first; I think they all came together at about the same time, give or take a day or two. The last part of the job was working out in what order to place the characters and their stories.

The Dark Web plays a pivotal role in The One. What are your views of the way in which modern society uses social media and technology?

We – and I include myself in this – spend way too much time on social media looking for approval. Whether it be Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, I’m often checking to see how many ‘likes’ or shares my posts have received. Some of it is necessary in the promotion of myself as a new writer, after all, I want people to read my books. But on other occasions I’m as guilty as anyone for seeking approval in a personal opinion I give or a photograph I post . My New Year’s resolution is (book publicity aside) to spend less time online.

(I think we could all benefit from less time living virtually.)

Christopher has an ‘interesting’ bookshelf. What might we find on yours?

Ha! Yes, much of his collection is somewhat limited to infamous serial killers. I flit around when it comes to books; one day I’ll be reading The Miniaturist and the next, Grace Jones’ autobiography. I love a good thriller like A Kind Worth Killing and Orphan X but I also enjoy stories as varied as Wool, Santa Monica Suicide Club and The Humans.

How do you go about researching detail and ensuring your books are realistic?

The Internet is a very useful tool and can answer most of my questions. As is Facebook’s THE Book Club. As a member yourself, Linda, you’ll know people there come from all walks of life. I’ve had a police officer telling me how to clean up a murder scene, a Cambridge DNA expert informing me of how to make the science part of The One more realistic and members based in Australia helping me pick out suitable locations.

Which aspects of your writing do you find easiest and most difficult?

Draft one is the hardest. When you’ve completed 5,000 words and you know you have around another 95,000 words to go, it seems an impossible and depressing task. I find the re-writes more fun than the first version. The hardest bit is having to read it after it’s been edited or proofed because by then, I am sick to death of the story.

What are your writing routines and where do you do most of your writing?

My commute to London is around an hour on the train, so that’s two hours a day of solid writing I can complete without the distractions of friends, family, the dog or the internet. If I’m on a roll, I’ll spend some time at night writing and also at the weekends at home in my office. But I won’t spend all my time doing it – it’s important to keep a balance.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to read?

I find I have less and less time to read as the years go on. I got through maybe half a dozen books last year and that was it. A full time job as a journalist plus this second job writing books, a new husband and a new house that requires redecoration which means I have precious little time to read.

Do you have other interests that give you ideas for writing?

Not really, my ideas to date all come from different sources. Book one, The Wronged Sons, was inspired by an article I read in The Guardian’s Family section, book two, Welcome To Wherever You Are, was inspired by my youth backpacking around America, and The One was inspired by a London Underground escalator!

If you hadn’t become an author, what would you have done instead as a creative outlet?

My partner and I moved into our house a couple of years ago and we’ve gradually redecorated it from top to bottom and remodelled the garden. So I get to be creative planning bathrooms, kitchens, sanding down floorboards and digging up dead tree roots!

(I love a bit of gardening myself…)

If you could choose to be a character from The One, who would you be and why?

I think I’d pick Nick, the heterosexual husband-to-be who is talked into taking the test by his fiancée, only to discover he’s matched with a man. His match, Alex, is a good looking chap!

If The One became a film, who would you like to play your central characters and why would you choose them?

Urban Myth Films, the production company behind Merlin, Atlantis and Crazy Head have optioned the rights to turn the book into a potential TV series. There are ten central characters, so it’s quite the ensemble cast. My favourite actors include Keeley Hawes, Katherine Parkinson, Natalie Dormer, Emmett Scanlan, Tom Hardy, Tom Hiddleston, Kit Harrington and Ben Whishaw. Wishful thinking, eh?

(Let’s hope it’s more than wishful thinking. The One would make a cracking series.)

If you had 15 words to persuade a reader that The One should be their next read, what would you say?

It’s different, it’s unpredictable and I guarantee you’ll ask yourself if you’d take the test.

(Ha! You’re absolutely right – I did ask myself that question and readers will need to read my review here to see what I decided!)

Thank you so much, John, for your time in answering my questions.

It’s been a pleasure. My journalism job involves spending all day asking celebrities questions. It makes a nice change to be on the receiving end of them!

About John Marrs

john-marrs

John Marrs is a freelance journalist based in London, England, who has spent the last 20 years interviewing celebrities from the world of television, film and music for national newspapers and magazines. He has written for publications including The Guardian’s Guide and Guardian Online; OK!Magazine; Total Film; Empire; Q; GT; The Independent; Star; Reveal; Company; Daily Star and News of the World’s Sunday Magazine.

His debut novel The Wronged Sons, was released in 2013 and in May 2015, he released his second book, Welcome To Wherever You Are.

You can follow John on Twitter and find him on Facebook. There’s more with these other bloggers too:

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An Interview with Victoria Blake, author of Titan’s Boatman

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I’m so pleased to welcome Victoria Blake, author of Titian’s Boatman, to Linda’s Book Bag today to celebrate publication. Titian’s Boatman will be published in hardback by Black and White on 26th January 2017 and is available for purchase here and on Amazon.

Titian’s Boatman

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It is 1576 and Venice is in chaos, ravaged by plague and overrun by crime.

In the midst of the anarchy we find those brave souls who have chosen not to flee the city. Titian, most celebrated of Venetian painters, his health failing badly. Sebastiano, a gondolier who is the eyes and ears of the corrupted and crumbling city. And Tullia, the most notorious courtesan of the age, who must fight to retain her status as well as her worldly possessions.

In the present day, the echoes of what happened centuries earlier still ripple as the lives of ordinary people as far distant as London and New York are touched by the legacy of old Venice…

An Interview with Victoria Blake

Hi Victoria. Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions on my blog about your writing and your latest book Titian’s Boatman in particular. Firstly, please could you tell me a little about yourself?

Hello and thank you so much for having me on your blog. I’m honoured! I’m the author of eight books. Four crime novels figuring PI Sam Falconer set partly in Oxford and partly in SW London. Two true crime books written for the National Archives and Far Away a Second World War novel which was short listed for the Historical Novel Society (HNS) Indie Award 2016. I’ve worked in law, publishing (Gerald Duckworth) and bookselling (The Silvermoon and Bookcase) and I live in London.

far-away

And, without spoiling the plot, please tell us a bit about Titian’s Boatman.

I might steal from Rory Clements here because he gave me a lovely quote: “From the squalid glamour of the 16th century Venice to modern-day London and New York, Titian’s Boatman demonstrates the power of art to bridge the years and transform lives.” Thank you Rory – a very good summing up!

Your father was the eminent historian Robert Blake. How has his interest in history impacted upon your own life and writing?

What a juicy question! The study of history runs through my family. My grandfather was a history teacher who taught my father and wrote history text books. My mother and my older sister both studied history at Oxford, as did I.  Having an eminent parent is a strange business there were obvious privileges to it. My father was the Provost of Queen’s College in Oxford and I grew up in the college but there was also a certain degree of fighting to get out of his shadow. I actually wanted to study English at University but both my parents were very hostile to the idea. They viewed the teaching of English (in the early eighties)  as having been taken over by Marxists like Terry Eagleton! I’m not sure that was altogether true but  I didn’t have the confidence at that time to go my own way. I actually loathed writing academic History essays but found an enjoyment of history when I wrote two true crime books for The National Archives – one on Ruth Ellis and one on Florence Maybrick. I think it partly had to do with getting my hands on original documents, having more time to study them, and finding the subject matter compelling. After that I found that when I can combine historical research with my fiction writing imagination (making it up!) it’s a sort of perfect blend for me.  Another influence from my father was the importance of readability. My father wrote a great deal of journalism in his life and I think he was very conscious of being both readable and entertaining not just when he wrote for newspapers but in his books as well.  He was a distinguished academic but there is nothing dry about his books.  His biography of Disraeli is a very long book but was so successful because it was engagingly written. When I write I am very conscious of the importance of entertaining  the reader.

(I loved this answer – especially as I was one of those 1980’s English teachers influenced by Terry Eagleton!)

When did you first realise you were going to be a writer?

I came to that conclusion fairly late on. In my twenties I remember reading Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and there was something transcendent about that book for me. She had taken quite unsettling  material and transmuted it into something magical and comical and she was very young when she wrote it. That book had tremendous chutzpah and style. And it’s also very tender.  It was clearly not a ‘gay’ book in the sense that it would be only of interest to gay people; it was a book that had a universal appeal. Any human being could identify with it. It was about first love, a very potent theme.  All writers are readers first and I think it is because they are touched deeply by other writers that they are drawn to writing in the first place. That’s how it was for me anyway. The hope is that you can go on and do that for other people.  That’s the dream. Then you realise how very hard it is!

So, what are your writing routines and where do you do most of your writing?

I managed to write my first four books at home but then I went through a phase when I felt rather depressed and thought I really must get out more. I write most days other than weekends. Mornings are more productive than afternoons. I don’t obsess over word count and I’m better than I used to be at trusting the fits and starts of the writing process.  I usually  spend a certain number of days working away from the flat where I live. There are a few Caffè Neros near me which I use one or two times a week. I don’t often work in libraries because I find them disconcertingly noisy. Sit me in a cafe with children crawling round my ankles and music booming out while coffee beans are being ground and I’m fine. Sometimes I work at home but I try not to do that two days in a row because I start to fester slightly. The effect of going out is that my books take slightly longer to write but I’m happier while I write them.

(That sounds like great advice too as I know writing can be a lonely and isolating experience.)

You’ve worked in publishing and book selling. How much has this influenced your approach to writing?

I think it’s made me very conscious of the immense privilege of being published and filled me with a strong sense of gratitude towards both my publisher and booksellers.  For a brief disastrous period I contemplated being a lawyer and it was while I was an articled clerk I remember, in my lunch hour, going into a Books etc  and leaning against the books and pining with every cell in my body to have a job that involved books.  I think I knew the world of books was my natural home and that I had strayed a very long way from it. It wasn’t that long after that I started working for the publisher Gerald Duckworth in their warehouse. It was quite funny because when I left the law everyone asked me what I was going to do and  the truth was I didn’t have a clue. However,  I was clear about one thing, that whatever the job was I’d be able to wear Doc Martens. They became a symbol of freedom and self-expression and DMs were very useful footwear when it came to the warehouse! For a time I had some red patent leather ones and I would look down at them and think these shoes are leading me where I want to go and it is far, far away from a City law firm!

You’ve written non-fiction in the past as well as your current fiction. Which do you find most challenging or rewarding  to write and why?

Writing non-fiction is much easier for me – you research, marshal your facts, think about your structure and get on with it. Obviously you have to write entertainingly but if you’re interested in your material that should come naturally. Fiction is both a torment and a delight. When it’s working and you’ve got momentum there’s nothing quite like it but there are times when you’re just staring into the abyss thinking what on earth made me think I could ever do it. The level of self-doubt I experience in writing fiction is much greater than in non-fiction. It’s because you are creating it from the ground up, every breath of it is you. In non-fiction you’ve got the facts to lean on; it’s more intellectual. With fiction you’re leaning on air! And the whole thing can feel like a pack of cards that is just on the verge of tumbling down. Despite the torments, my heart really lies in fiction because there is this immense creative freedom which is both exhilarating and terrifying.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to read?

A quick glance behind me presents me with: The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant, Francis Spufford’s Golden Hind, Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, Now is the Time by Melvyn Bragg.  On my desk is a 1930 pocketbook version of The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett and on a side table is a copy of a Simenon in French, L’assassin – a wildly optimistic purchase to try and revive my extremely dormant French skills.  This last year I’ve been reading more books in translation influenced by bloggers I follow like Stu at Winston’s Dad and Tony at Tony’s Reading List. I suppose the simple answer is that I like to read pretty much everything apart from Sci Fi, Fantasy and Romance.

Titian’s Boatman is a departure from your Sam Falconer crime books. How did that come about?

I had very much enjoyed writing crime but I wanted to spread my wings a bit and try something different and to be perfectly frank, much as I had enjoyed writing them, no one was queuing up to ask me for another Sam Falconer book! There’s a much stronger tradition of crime books featuring private investigators in the US than in the UK. But I’m glad because Titian’s Boatman used different writing muscles and extended me in an entirely different way creatively.

What made you choose Titian and his painting The Man With The Blue Sleeve for the basis of your novel as opposed to any other artist and painting?

I just love the painting. I was between books (always a tricky time because I get a bit antsy when I’m not writing) and went for a wander in The National Gallery in London and there he was and I realised that I always ended up in front of him when I was in a certain kind of directionless, fretful  mood and then I noticed when he was painted and how young Titian was when he painted him – 20. That was the trigger for the book. I think there’s something really compelling about him. He’s such a sexy, sardonic, arrogant looking man. What’s not to like about that spectacular sleeve combined with those very neatly plucked eyebrows! And once I started writing about him and was telling people, an enormous number ended up saying things like ‘Oh yes, isn’t he lovely?’  At first I was rather miffed since I had viewed him as a sort of private obsession but then I thought well maybe there’s a sort of secret cult of The Man with the Blue Sleeve (fingers crossed) and they’ll all buy my book.

(Let’s hope so!)

How did you go about researching C16th Venice for Titian’s Boatman?

I sort of followed my nose. A very important source for me was Pietro Aretino’s letters. He was Renaissance Venice’s gossip columnist, trend setter and political diarist and also wrote pornography. He was a great friend and supporter of Titian. He wrote enormous numbers of letters, to a wide range of different people: Kings, Dukes, Doges but also to courtesans and his own gondolier (advising him not to marry.) He even wrote letters thanking friends for sending him salad! He’s incredibly readable, vivid, warm and playful. I read histories of Venice. Peter Ackroyd doesn’t know how to write a dull sentence.  I also read up about the courtesan Veronica Franco and I based my character Tullia loosely on her. Franco was encouraged by her patron to write poetry which he then published. I found Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities useful.  That is such a weird and wonderful book about imaginary cities, it sort of set my imagination free to engage with Venice in a more fluid and lyrical way. Oh, and I mustn’t forget Sheila Hale’s magisterial biography of Titian.

(Ooo. Invisible Cities takes me back to my own university days!)

How easy or difficult was it to balance the two time frames in Titian’s Boatman?

I think I would have to say that there was nothing about this book that I found very easy to write and that would include handling the time-frames. You try to make the narratives and characters compelling in different ways so that the reader isn’t jarred by the transitions but you also know the nature of the beast is that readers will prefer certain parts of the book to others and may well go, ‘Oh no’, when you move between them.  That’s how it is for me as a reader. As a writer I’m never satisfied with my books. If I read through Titian’s Boatman today I would probably start changing it as I read it but you have to draw a line sometime or you’d drive yourself mad.

(Do you know, I’ve never thought of authors reading their own books as readers after publication before!)

Given the theme of art in Titian’s Boatman, does that mean you’re a painter too or was there another reason for choosing this subject?

That’s interesting. I don’t paint but when I was first exploring the idea of being a writer I did Julia Cameron’s creativity course, The Artist’s Way, with my friend the painter Francesca Howard. She wanted to be a painter and I wanted to be a writer. And I think some of her passion for colour and painting must have rubbed off on my creative process. I find looking at paintings very restful when I’ve overdone the writing. I suppose it’s because no words are involved but often there is a story there that I can receive visually.

If you could choose one painting from Titian to hang on your own wall, which would it be and why?

I think it would have to be The Man with the Blue Sleeve or there’d be hell to pay. He’d definitely haunt me. Mind you if he was on the wall he would probably haunt me as well!

I love the art canvas on the cover of Titian’s Boatman. How did that image come about and what were you hoping to convey (without spoiling the plot please!)?

Isn’t it wonderful? My editor asked me what sort of idea I had for the cover and all I could come up with was The Man with the Blue Sleeve and then B&W came up with the jacket and I loved it on sight. What was fantastic is that it was much cleverer than anything I could have thought of. I was at the HNS Conference in the autumn and people were talking there about how it was about time that the covers of historical novels got a re-think. I think we were trying to convey a mystery and that also the book wasn’t a straightforward historical narrative. It’s a bit more of a mixture than that. At the end of the day the aim of a cover is to entice someone into picking it up, it is to make the book stand out from the crowd and I think it’s a spectacularly successful piece of design and succeeds magnificently. Since James Daunt took over at Waterstone’s there’s been a big revival of the hardback as a beautiful object – The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is a very good example of that. As an ex-bookseller and a compulsive book buyer this jacket of Titian’s Boatman would make me pick it up. I also love the frames round the chapter headings and that comes courtesy of Chris Kydd B&Ws production director.

Do you have other interests that give you ideas for writing?

I love theatre, cinema, sport and politics. My father taught politics and so there was always a lot of conversation at home about what was going on in the world. He’s no longer alive but over the last couple of years I have spent a great deal of time having conversations with him in my head about amongst other things the Scottish Referendum, Brexit and Trump. He was an expert on the British Constitution and would have been fascinated and probably appalled by what has happened! Sport I find compelling because there is an inbuilt  drama – who will win and who will lose. Then there is the whole question of how people respond to winning and losing. People’s characters are exposed. Roger Federer glides through tennis matches barely sweating whereas Andy Murray looks like playing is akin to an act of self immolation. Both fantastic players but such different personalities displayed when they play. As a writer I’m more of  a Murray than a Federer I can tell you! I also work one day a week in a charity second hand bookshop and that appeals to the magpie in me. Bookshops are an extremely good source of ideas.

If you could choose to be a character from Titian’s Boatman, who would you be and why?

I think it would have to be The Boatman, Sebastiano, his is the guiding voice of the novel and the voice I heard first and last. I think it would be fascinating to be a gondolier in Renaissance Venice. If not him then maybe the stone-throwing nun, Sister Maria – in her youth! That kind of wild rebelliousness is very appealing.

If Titian’s Boatman became a film, who would you like to play Sebastiano and Tullia and why would you choose them?

I love Romola Garai and still have not recovered from the TV series The Hour being axed by the BBC so I would have her as Tullia. She has the beauty, intelligence and the force of character to play her. As for Sebastiano I think maybe Benedict Cumberbatch.  He can act a bit.

What can we expect next from Victoria Blake?

My next book is again historical fiction set in the 1930s and is about one of the first female war correspondents who goes to report on the Spanish Civil War. I have always found women war correspondents fascinating, the epitome of courage, integrity and glamour. How do you go into those dangerous situations, keep it together, and come away without being emotionally destroyed by all the things you have witnessed. It has been a great privilege to watch Kate Adie, Lindsey Hilsum, Orla Guerin and Lyse Doucet over the years. I think they are incredible women.

And finally, if you had 15 words to persuade a reader that Titian’s Boatman should be their next read, what would you say?

Stone throwing nuns are involved and Francesco da Mosto says it’s compelling. He never lies!

Thank you so much for your time, Victoria, in answering my questions with such vivid and entertaining responses.

Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.

About Victoria Blake

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Victoria Blake’s love of Italy and history was inspired by her father, the historian Robert Blake, famous for his pioneering biography of Benjamin Disraeli. She grew up in Queen’s College, Oxford where he was the Provost. After studying history at Lady Margaret Hall she subsequently worked in law, publishing and bookselling. She is the author of an Oxford-based crime series featuring the PI Sam Falconer and has written two true crime books for the National Archives, one on Ruth Ellis, and one on Florence Maybrick. Her historical novel Far Away was shortlisted for the Historical Society Novel Indie Award 2016.

You can find Victoria on Facebook, follow her on Twitter and visit her blog.

There’s more with these other bloggers too:

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An Extract from The Mask of Command by Ian Ross

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I’m a little bit obsessed by Roman history so it gives me great pleasure to be sharing an extract from The Mask of Command by Ian Ross with you today. The Mask of Command is the fourth in the Twilight of Empire series. Published in e-book and hardback on 12th January 2017 by Head of Zeus, The Mask of Command is available for purchase from all good booksellers and by following the publisher links here.

The Mask of Command

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When a treacherous act of murder throws the western provinces into turmoil, Aurelius Castus is ordered to take command of the military forces on the Rhine. But he soon discovers that the frontier is a place where the boundaries between civilisation and barbarism, freedom and slavery, honour and treason have little meaning.

At the very heart of the conflict are two vulnerable boys. One is Emperor Constantine’s young heir, Crispus. The other is Castus’s own beloved son, Sabinus. Only Castus stands between them and men who would kill them.

With all that he loves in danger, Castus and a handful of loyal men must fight to defend the Roman Empire. But in the heat of battle, can he distinguish friend from enemy?

An Extract from The Mask of Command

PROLOGUE

Campus  Ardiensis,  Thracia, January ad 317

The plain was covered with the wrack  of war.

Many  times the opposing armies had clashed,  drawn back,  and  then  clashed  again,  arrows and  javelins flickering beneath winter  clouds  that  boiled  like dark  smoke.  Now  the coarse and frost-stiffened grass and the ice-rimed pools bristled with  spent  missiles and  shattered shields. The bodies  of men and horses clogged the bloodied turf. Iron gleamed dull in the fading light, and the wind made the battle cries and the trumpet calls indistinguishable from the wails of the dying.

On  a low ridge to the north of the plain,  a group  of men crouched below  a stand  of twisted  black  hawthorns, gazing out over the battlefield. The banners and shield blazons  were lost  in the  gathering murk, and  for  a few long  moments it was impossible  for the observers to say which army fought for Constantine and which for Licinius. Impossible to say who was winning, and  what  had  been lost. But already  the first snow was whirling in from the south, and the men on the ridge knew that  few of the wounded left between  the battle  lines would survive the night.

The youngest of the group, a supernumerary centurion with a wind-reddened face, threw out an arm suddenly and pointed.

‘I see it!’ he cried. ‘Just to the right of the centre – the imperial standard! Constantine must be there…’ He turned to the big man beside him, who knelt,  impassive,  wrapped in his cloak.

‘Dominus,’ the centurion said.  ‘Should  we give the order  to advance?  The track  will take us straight down  onto  the plain – we can reinforce  the battle  line at the centre…’

The senior officer unlaced his gilded helmet and lifted it from his head. He squinted, and his coarse heavy features  bunched as he seemed to sniff the breeze.

‘No,’ he said. The word  steamed  in the frigid air.

‘But, dominus… why delay any longer? Surely the emperor needs us…?’ The centurion was young,  untested in war  and eager to prove himself. Behind them, on the track, five thousand soldiers waited  in column  with their baggage and equipment. Two days’ forced march  had brought them here – surely now they could turn  the tide of the battle?

‘I said no.’

The big man rubbed a palm along his jaw, through the rasp of stubble and the ugly scar that knotted his cheek. He studied the battlefield before  him,  and  the young  centurion saw the calculation in his eyes. He put his helmet back on.

‘The army’s strong  enough  at the centre,’ he said. ‘There’s another track  to our left, running along the rear of this ridge. It should  take  us down  onto  the plain  to the east. We swing around that  way and we can hit the enemy on their flank.’

The centurion blinked, and then stared at the land ahead of him. Snowflakes  whirled  in the wind, almost  hypnotic.

‘Well, what are you waiting for?’ the commander said curtly.

‘Get down there, find the emperor and report our position! Tell him that I intend  to outflank the enemy lines on the left. Go!’

‘Dominus!’ the centurion said, saluting  as he leaped to his feet. He turned and  ran  down  the slope to where  the horses were tethered. The commander watched the young man vault into the saddle, then spur his horse into a gallop down the trail towards the distant standards at the centre  of the battle  line. He exhaled, breathing a curse  as he recalled  the old adage. War is sweet to the untried.  An experienced man fears it with all his heart.

About Ian Ross

authorianross

Ian Ross was born in England, and studied painting before turning to writing fiction.

He has travelled widely, and after a year in Italy teaching English and exploring the ruins of empire reawakened his early love for ancient history, he returned to the UK with growing fascination for the period known as late antiquity.

He has been researching and writing about the later Roman world and its army for over a decade, and his interests combine an obsessive regard for accuracy and detail with a devotion to the craft of storytelling.

Ian Ross now lives in Bath.

You can visit Ian’s website and follow him on Twitter. You’ll also find him on Facebook.

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