Nature notes

Squeezing the very last juices out of this long autumn before sitting down to properly begin the DAUGHTER OF THE HOUSE edit, with an afternoon walking another lap of the Capital Ring from Crystal Palace to Wimbledon. It’s not an area of London I know at all, or can even remember visiting before, having spent my forty-odd years here living at the diametrically opposite corner. Who would have thought that Upper Norwood is full of grand houses and startling views over the Kentish weald or the far-distant Shard and Gherkin? At this time of year the huge gardens are all scarlet berries and drooping butter-yellow foliage, and the quiet pavements thick with black-spotted sycamore leaves. As in a previous blog entry (the One about Sewage) we are still admiring the triumphs of the Victorian water engineers. This Moorish-looking brick temple complete with cupolas is another pumping station, built in 1888 for the Southwark and Vauxhall Waterworks Company. No self-effacing utility exteriors in those days. It’s all BLAM! Get an eyeful of THIS!

IMG_1540And one other long walk, following the Suffolk coast. A spell of damp weather after a sunny summer has intensified the colours to saturation point. The purple-russet of that bracken looks good enough to EAT, while the gorse is still bright with flowers. Oak and birch leaves are genteelly fading against the glossy background of pine and spruce. Any day now there’ll be a heavy frost, and everything will pitch straight into winter.

IMG_1542Back to work. Today I’ve re-read my text with my editor’s detailed notes in front of me, and am reminded yet again what a gulf there always is between what I think I’ve written, and what’s actually there on the page. After a month of not looking or even thinking about it, coming afresh I have to agree that I’ve undercooked the love story quite seriously – as a result of trying not to overdo it! It won’t be difficult to flesh it out (ahem), and I’m really looking forward to stitching in some new scenes, and at the same time cutting otiose pages, slashing the adverbs, smoothing out the time scale, and turning it all into seamless perfection. I hope.

Actually I’m itching to get started.

More later.

 

It’s a thumbs up

The verdict is in on DAUGHTER OF THE HOUSE. Thank you to the regular readers of this, who reassured me during the waiting weeks.

All’s well. There’s a bit of editorial tweaking to be done, but nothing major. The editor’s notes will follow, after which there will be a bit of bargaining, and then I’ll go away and make the necessary amendments. Apparently these are mostly to do with the timescale, which is a long one for me – from 1910 to 1934. I have written the story in four discrete sections, but my excellent editor takes the view that these should be smoothed together so that the story runs more seamlessly. It’s a fair point, although I’m not yet sure how it’s to be done. But from experience I do know that it’s much easier to edit existing material than it is to write from scratch, so I don’t feel apprehensive. The book will be published (I think) next May, following on from the paperback edition of THE ILLUSIONISTS in April. Hurrah!

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THE ILLUSIONISTS pb 5b (23 Oct)

Here’s the latest version of the proposed cover. Any thoughts, anyone??

I’m at the coast again for the winter season, with a view over the grey North Sea, reading history and turning over ideas for the next novel. I love the progression from being totally absorbed in one book to the slow seduction by the next.

The one about yoga


This is where we stayed

This is where we stayed

The shady terrace of an old house in a Berber village, deep in the folds of the hills overlooking Marrakesh, was the perfect spot for a week of yoga. I was there with my daughter, who is supple enough to take the lotus pose and can stand on her head at will. I can do neither, or not without some inelegant heaving and hoicking first, but I’m ready to give anything a try and hence the week’s retreat. I’m still a newcomer to the asanas scene, having only taken up yoga last Christmas – rather unwillingly – as an alternative to running and rock climbing, which are the activities I really love. But past the age of 65, I glumly discover, the knees and hips start to get rickety and the spine painfully compresses as the discs lose their spongy resilience. There’s not much to be done about it – just try to find something to do that doesn’t demand so much of the brittle body.

The daughter and I and the double down dog

The daughter and I and the double down dog

This retreat was quite a forgiving one. There were no rules about turning vegan, or forbidding a margarita at sunset. Classes ran from 7.30 to 9am and 4 to 6.30pm, so there was plenty of time in between for sunbathing and exploring. The daughter and I pushed on at our different ability levels, and for the rest of the time we read or talked. I devoured three books from the Man Booker list – Howard Jacobson, Ali Smith and David Nicholls. All good. I liked How to be Both best of the three. It’s got an interesting structure, and a kind of fierce delicacy about it. This is by no means a book blog, but it’s the title off the list I would recommend. That said, I still haven’t read the winner, or Neel Mukherjee.

Emptying the mind during the meditation sessions was much harder than taking the crow pose. There’s always some little voice inside my head. Hello? Listen to that bird. My nose is itchy. Will there be pancakes for breakfast? Especially now. It’s a month since I sent in the completed manuscript of DAUGHTER OF THE HOUSE, and I still haven’t heard anything from the publishers. They are busy people and have to go to a lot of meetings with each other, but a month feels a really long time to be left in a state of anxious suspension. What if they hate it? What if they’re trying to find a way to tell me? Maybe it’s terrible. There’s that bird again.

According to our excellent teacher, you are supposed to gently acknowledge the intrusion of the thought, then bring your attention back to your breath. Slow inhale, hold, slow exhale. Slow in, hold….

Well. Maybe I have learned a little.

The one about sewage

There have been other posts here about how writing and walking work together for me. Having just submitted the latest novel (more about this elsewhere), what I really wanted was to embark on a new long walk. My main brain needs a spell in neutral while I plod along admiring the autumn colours in the hope that my subconscious might whir away on new ideas. The current long-term walking project is the Wales Coast Path (earlier post, and a new one to come soon) but I also needed something accessible to tackle in afternoon-length chunks over the next few weeks.

The ideal route turned out to be even closer at hand than I’d hoped and was quite a major surprise. I’ve lived in London and loved it for forty years, but I only discovered the Capital Ring this summer because we stumbled across a section of it on a Sunday afternoon outing. http://www.walklondon.org.uk/route.asp?R=1 The ring now forms a complete circle around London, 78 miles of linked paths along waterways and through neighbourhood parks, patches of ancient woodland and improbable nature reserves. We have done almost a third of it to date, and so far it’s been fascinatingly unexpected and off the beaten track. Who would have thought that the city’s isolated green oases and scrubby back ways actually join up to form a rural meander through layers of history and archaeology? There would be no reason to take a stroll through Plaistow or Woolwich, for example, unless you happen to live or work nearby, but these walks lead you through their cemeteries and alongside the football pitches and past local picnic spots. It’s like being given a glimpse into other people’s lives, as on those winter afternoons before the curtains are closed on lamplit front rooms.

My favourite bit so far has been the stretch from Hackney Wick to Royal Albert dock, across the water from London City Airport. It passes the Olympic Stadium and meanders over the Bow Back Rivers, and then there’s a long stretch laid on top of a huge sewage pipe known as the Northern Outfall Sewage Embankment, or NOSE. Some chuckling sewage engineer must really have enjoyed that one. The stats are: four 9-inch pipes carry the biggest flow of sewage in the country, 100 million gallons a day, to Beckton for treatment before discharge into the Thames.

IMG_1226Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s mid-19th century constructions are mostly still in use. This picture is not of a Victorian church or museum, but the Abbey Mills Pumping Station alongside the NOSE– known as ‘the Temple of Sewage’. It only closed down in 1997. A little further on, the four rather classy minarets mark the corners of the duct carrying the NOSE’s millions of gallons over the main road to Beckton.

P1000891

I’d never have seen either this or the site of the Royal Albert lock–big enough to carry the liner Mauretania–without having embarked on a weird walk. No perfectly-formed new plot as yet, but it’s there somewhere…

Meanwhile, my beloved agent called to say he loves the new book. My demon inner voice always whispers, ‘Well he would say that, wouldn’t he?’

No word from the publishers as yet. They are all away schmoozing at the Frankfurt Book Fair this week, so the verdict is not imminent.

 

Finished!

4306_001

Who wouldn’t welcome such a generous review, and in the New York Times for added prestige? Not me, of course. THE ILLUSIONISTS is my most recently published book, and the US market isn’t an easy one to crack, and this write-up will help sales (I hope) no end. It’s just that, well, it isn’t for the book I have this week finished writing, which is different, and therefore if a critic likes that one, does it mean she won’t like this one?

Therein is the writer’s Catch 22.

The book everyone’s reviewing and reading (ideal scenario, obviously) is very much not the book that’s occupying your thoughts by day and keeping you awake by night. And sometimes it can feel like lose-lose, because if people didn’t like that one, then this one will surely go down like the inflatable leaden object. Take DAUGHTER OF THE HOUSE, which I completed two days ago after a year of work. This one won’t be published until next May by which time, whether it’s praised or slated, I will no doubt be immersed in something else completely at odds with it, see above. The discomfort goes with the job, I know, and I’m just sharing this perspective. There are plenty of compensatory upsides to the writer’s life. (Now, just remind me…)

A solution might be to take the book that readers seem to like best, and keep recycling it. Change the names and so forth. But that doesn’t work either, as we all know from novelists who shall be nameless here. You can do it once maybe, twice at most. After that even your biggest fan will be begging for a break.

DAUGHTER OF THE HOUSE has been particularly interesting to write because it’s the sequel to THE ILLUSIONISTS. It takes the next generation of the Wix family from 1910 to the 1930s, and although the setting is still London generally and specifically the rundown theatrical world, it’s totally different in tone and perspective. I’ve never done a sequel before and I had to work out how much of the backstory to include and how much to take as read. The second book has to stand alone but it also has to be a continuation of the first, and I really enjoyed steering the middle path. Time will tell if I’ve been successful.

The book cycle revolves again. I’ll wait now to hear from my agent and my editor.

Will they like it?

What about the edit, the jacket, the marketing plan?

What about….

Oh, what the hell. Time for a holiday.

PS Thanks to those who are still following this sporadic account. For the last couple of months I have been too preoccupied with the day job deadline to do much blogging, but I hope that will now change. Coming up: news of the scary territory between submission and publication, and some travel, long-distance walking, and I hope FUN.

The wheel turns again

 

I really have had my head down and writing hard for the last month or so, not thinking of anything much beyond the current page or how to get into the next scene. So I was startled to get a request from my Canadian publishers for a 100-150 word description of the book that they could use to circulate amongst colleagues for the in-house launch. I really shouldn’t have been surprised; the new novel will be published on both sides of the Atlantic in the first half of the year and it’s impressive that they are already gearing up for the sell-in and want to whet some appetites. But what should I say? It’s not even finished! What if it isn’t any good?? Oh, help!!! This is the point at which the writer does really feel like the grain of sand at the very bottom of the inverted pyramid of expectation.

I had to give myself a good kicking. I’m a professional writer and the only way forward is to man up and get on with it. I put together a few sentences about DAUGHTER OF THE HOUSE and sent them to Canada, and this is what they came back with:

 

A captivating tour-de-force of love, magic, and the theatre, perfect for fans of Sarah Waters, The Night Circus, and Water for Elephants

 

The dazzling sequel to The Illusionists, from the beloved and bestselling author of The Kashmir Shawl

The year is 1910: Eliza’s life has been utterly transformed since she dove head-first into the bohemian world of the Palmyra Theatre, becoming first a stage player and, since her marriage to impresario Devil Wix, a canny woman of business. She is now the mother of growing children, and in her family life as well as at the theatre she must face the challenges of a new century.

 

The First World War changes the world forever, and the fortunes of the Wix family change with it. Eliza’s daughter, Nancy, must find a way to keep the Palmyra afloat, and to entertain audiences who have lost husbands and sons in the conflict. Nancy is a born performer, but she is set apart—even from her beloved brothers—by her psychic gifts. She learns that she must harness her troubling powers, under the tutelage of the mysterious Mr. Feather, to keep the family and the theatre intact.

 

It is a dangerous path and a lonely one, but Nancy’s bold choices lead her to love, and beyond that to the recognition of what it takes to become a modern woman. As another war begins to threaten the world, she is forced into a final, fateful confrontation with her demons, and must marshal both her ingenuity and her mysterious talents to fight for the survival of friendship, independence, and family.

 

“Love, seduction, magic and illusion collide as Rosie Thomas takes us on a spellbinding journey through an extremely shadowy world.” —Daily Express on The Illusionists

 

Wow. I want to read it myself!

This first engagement with a fresh publishing cycle has really given me a burst of energy. I’ve still got a chapter-and-a-half to write, but you know what?

I can do it.

 

Light dawns

On the left side

On the left side

On the right side

On the right side

I’ve written before about how writing and walking seem to fit together.

I’ve just hiked the first section of the Wales Coast Path – only fifty miles out of 890 in total, but it’s a start. I think Wales is the only country in the world with a path around its entire coastline, and as I have already completed the Offa’s Dyke path up the Welsh/English border this means that the whole perimeter of over a thousand miles now lies in my grasp. Onwards!

It’s one of those ideas that just cannot be dismissed once it has entered your head. Manna for the completist, which I unfortunately am.

The little section in the bottom left-hand corner from the old Wye Bridge in Chepstow heading west along the curve of the Severn estuary to Cardiff looked thoroughly unpromising on the map: a post-industrial sprawl of decaying steel- and water-works, motorway and marshland. In fact it was superb. Most of the route runs along the sea wall, so on the left hand there are vacant mud flats seamed with khaki channels waiting to be erased by the froth of fast-rising tide. The two Severn Bridges spring across like sketches drawn in shimmering air. Yes—we were lucky with the weather – none of this would look quite so enticing in wind and rain.

On the right hand there is a different emptiness. It’s a remote hinterland of salt marsh and wetland, crisscrossed with pylons and bounded by the distant M4. The hum of power and traffic is spiked all the way by the pee-pit of marsh birds and the trilling of larks. The banks rising to the sea wall are thick with rusty spikes of sorrel, brambles and dog roses, and lush billows of cow parsley and buttercup. There are occasional fields of ripening corn, and the church towers of villages like Redwick poking up from a mile inland, to give the aspect of a rural idyll to what is really only the tiny rim of a semi-urban wasteland. There are plenty of vast rusting sheds and expanses of weed-stabbed concrete to testify to what was once productive and is now redundant. But the worst eyesores of all are the scattered wind turbines. Everywhere you look. Hideous. Pointless?

I was walking with my brother, who is a good talker but is also good at not talking (essential quality for 3 long days of one-on-one companionship). I was thinking, as I always am on these excursions, about the current book– and it suddenly dawned on me that this one is all about brothers and sisters. As well as the central one there are three or four sister/brother pairings, each illustrating different aspects of sibling relationships. I am three-quarters of the way through DAUGHTER OF THE HOUSE. How can I not have realised this essential theme of the book before now???

I write by making things up as I go along, so the book was less planned in advance than it might have been. But as ever, walking and thinking brings the subconscious to the surface.