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.




Two more publication days

The Canadian edition I’ve just received the copies of the Canadian edition -so good to have it in my hands at last.  The picture doesn’t do justice to the highly finger-able raised lettering, or the gloss on the playing cards, nor does it show the deckle fore-edge, but it does look dark and sumptuous. I am thrilled with it, and my Canadian editor says the early orders are great. I know I’d pick it up! It’s now published over there, and in the US too. Fingers crossed for both these editions. There’s a great review in July’s US Booklist:

‘Thomas’ follow-up to her wide-ranging romantic epic, The Kashmir Shawl (2013), takes place within the narrower confines of the Victorian theatrical world but is equally gripping. In 1885, when the charismatic Devil Wix meets Carlo Boldoni, a dwarf with undeniable magical skills, they become a dynamic team whose “box trick” electrifies audiences at a shabby venue in London’s Strand. Devil has grand ambitions,though—“to transform the Palmyra theatre into a palace of illusions . . . it should be a place of wonderment.” The darkly compelling Devil, an unrepentant gambler with a haunted past, grabs readers’
attention from page one. Surrounding him is a varied cast that includes Heinrich Bayer, who unnervingly treats his mechanical dance partner like a real woman, and Eliza Dunlop, a smart, courageous artist’s model hoping for a starring role in Devil’s life. While the background details on stage magic and the theater business are captivating, Devil and Eliza’s ardent love story is the book’s emotional heart, and the ever-changing connections among all its intriguing performers fill it with genuine life and vitality.’

This is very encouraging, particularly as I am caught in the coils of of the sequel – present title DAUGHTER OF THE HOUSE – somewhere around chapter 12. Three-quarters of the way through a book is often a low point for me. The end should be in sight, but it very much isn’t. There are so many strands of the story still to be worked out, so many loose ends to be darned in, and quite a lot of gaping holes without any threads to fill them. I need a significant act of bravery for one of my characters to perform and thus change our opinions of him. What can it be? At this moment I haven’t a clue. But this is the job!

There does always come a day when I suddenly realise I am sprinting to the last chapter, and there is no more exhilarating moment. The actual last page is often an anticlimax, and half an hour later comes the thought – what can I do NEXT?

Tell us a story

I found a story I wrote ages ago, so I have put it up under a separate page on the menu bar

I don’t write many short stories, because it’s so difficult to do. I do read them, though, and the best ones are so brilliant they can leave you gasping for air. John Cheever’s, for example, or Alice Munro’s. One of my favourite iPod resorts, particularly for insomnia or on long boring journeys, is the New Yorker Fiction podcast in which a New Yorker writer chooses another story from the magazine’s archive to read aloud and discuss with the fiction editor.

I’m in Italy for a few days, recharging before writing the last third of the current novel, so I have been thinking about stories and via the podcasts I have just listened to Rick Bass reading Thomas McGuane’s ICE. Oh how simple it seems, and how complicated it actually is to put so much meaning into so few words. I can’t get the rhythm of McGuane’s writing out of my head.

Rather sotto voce lately on this page. It’s partly just because of work soaking up most of the energy, but also because I have had a bad back. I’ve never suffered from this before and it does rather take over.

Hoping for an improvement following plenty of pasta and Tuscan red.


Over there, over here

There hasn’t been much blogging recently, which isn’t to say that life hasn’t been eventful. Last week was taken up by a trip to New York, which always fires up the synapses. I think I usually walk fast, but New Yorkers zoom by at such a pace you can almost see the whizz lines, like in the comics. Although the impression was probably heightened by the fact that this time I could hardly walk at all, having done something horrendous to my back the week before. I’ve never had backache in my life, so it came as a grim shock to suddenly be in such pain that I was hobbling along with a stick, like some ancient crone in a legend. I had to beg BA for special boarding, with the babies and the wheelchairs. (I’ve seen the osteopath for some unjamming now. Magic! One or two more manipulations should fix it. Gratitude knows no bounds).

Crone issues apart, it was an intriguing few days. I met the team at Overlook Press, my US publishers, and heard about their plans for the hardback launch of THE ILLUSIONISTS on July 1. It’s quite a different experience from publication here. The book looks completely unlike the UK edition– much darker and more mysterious. Overlook is a small house, and they use ingenuity and boundless energy to get their books and authors noticed.

With Peter Mayer the legendary publisher, and President of Overlook Press

With Peter Mayer the legendary publisher, and President of Overlook Press

They hosted a chic lunch party for me to meet a group influential book trade people, including Carol Fitzgerald and her colleagues from Bookreporter, who advise eight thousand book clubs across the US, and Dawn Raffel from Reader’s Digest with eight million readers. Big numbers. The lunch was at 21 Club, a glamorous mirrored and wood-panelled cavern dating back to Prohibition days. Back then there was a system of levers that tipped the bottles of booze off the shelves and down a chute into the sewers whenever the police paid a visit.

21 Club lunch

21 Club lunch

I also had time to have dinner with my very first boyfriend, who has lived in NY for decades.

We worked out that it was exactly fifty years ago that we fell in love. Aaaaaah…

Now, barely even limping, I’m back in London and writing again. I think I have just about reached the mid-point of the new book and within and beneath the preoccupations of talking and responding and travelling, it’s what I’m thinking about…all the time, every waking moment. Is it working? Will it turn out OK?

Only time will tell.

On the road again

There has been some journeying this week to talk about THE ILLUSIONISTS in bookshops and libraries, and it has been soothing between events to sit in rattling cross-country trains and stare out at pale green trees and fields. Even the rusty ribbons of trackside dereliction between Reading and Euston are frothed-up and festive as a wedding with cherry and blackthorn blossom.

We still have some great independent booksellers, like Booka Bookshop in Oswestry, and it’s a joy to meet readers and other writers at these talks and signings. I feel as if I’m wrapping up conversations and affection like a goody bag from a party and bringing them home to my writer’s cave to last me through to the next outing. There’s a frustrating aspect to the book tour, though. So many interesting people come to the signing table, for example the reader who knew all about the European cemetery in Leh that appears in THE KASHMIR SHAWL – because she was responsible for restoring it! There is no time to talk properly to anyone, because I am pathologically averse to keeping anyone waiting, ever, and I am always conscious of the line of people tailing back as I check the spelling of the dedicatee’s name and aim for a legible signature. I don’t know what the answer is to this. Perhaps there isn’t one. There’s also the toad squatting on my shoulder to remind me that most readers liked the book preceding the one they are now loyally purchasing, which is quite different. What if they don’t like it? And if they don’t, it’s certain they won’t care for the one I’m half way through writing now…. So goes the author’s life. Maybe I should go into accountancy!

In the last post I mentioned BORDER CROSSING, the only non-fiction book I’ve written. It’s the rollicking account of a classic car rally I entered in a restored Volvo Amazon, co-driven by Phil Bowen. When we left Peking Phil and I hardly knew each other. By the time we drove into the Place de la Concorde in Paris six weeks later we had mapped the entire Mars/Venus conflict in one old car…

The book has been out of print for quite a long time but it’s a fun read and I’m pleased to say that it now digitally available to download via this link.

Border Crossing


In the next couple of days there will be some pictures of our petrol-head adventures in the Gallery, too.


THE ILLUSIONISTS is out there and I’ve been thrashing about in the coils of the new book for what feels like a long time – but is really only since mid-January. I have written perhaps a third of it. It’s not an easy one, and it’s hard to be disciplined when the sun’s shining like it is today and there are exuberant green shoots springing up in unexpected places – including my narrative. Time for a creative break, and luckily I’m about to get one.

I’ll be heading to the north of England and then down to south Wales to visit libraries and bookshops and to talk at the Cowbridge Festival and the Wiltshire Federation of Women’s Institutes. I love meeting real readers and book buyers. Sometimes we London types get too caught up in book prize gossip and publishing chat and general FOMO anxiety, and it’s good to travel to somewhere else and talk to people who want to read a good story.

Details and dates for these events are on my News page. If you are anywhere in the vicinity, please come along.

In the next post I’ll be writing about the e-book launch of a favourite title of mine – not a novel at all, but a sort of adventure/autobiography featuring old cars and a Mars-Venus clash…

Here’s a picture.

Rally18 FB

Publication day

I’m supposed to be immersed in Chapter 6 of the new book, the sequel to THE ILLUSIONISTS, but it’s hard to think myself into 1920s London when I keep wondering about what’s happening to the other volume on its first day out in the world. I should invest in that writers’ app that shuts off the internet, no quibbling, for an interval that you pre-agree with yourself. Or perhaps I’ll just give up and do the ironing.

It is almost exactly four years, I realise, since the original idea for THE ILLUSIONISTS came to me while I was gnawing my pencil in the library on the trail of another notion altogether. It’s impossible to harvest an idea in the process of trying to have an idea – they come out of the ether when you are in the throes of something else. The writing itself is different; you chip doggedly away, on some days cutting more than you create, on other days having a small surge of a few paragraphs. It’s slow work, deliberate in intent and execution, and on a daily scale seeming removed from any process of inspiration. It’s more like tiling, or darning. Although I know that many authors don’t see it like that it all.

I love hearing other writers talk, so I’m just off to Suffolk to the Aldeburgh literary festival. I’ll be seeing Patrick Gale, Sarah Dunant and – if I can steal or forge or embezzle a ticket – Hermione Lee discussing her wonderful biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, one of my favourite writers.

Thanks to all for following these accounts of bringing a book to market.

I think I’ve got a bit of post-natal depression…..