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Lessons of Lockdown

Sometimes, people ask me, ‘how do you write?’ This is in an interesting question, particularly as lock down has shed some light on the matter.

The truth is, I’ve always been a bit embarrassed about my writing process.  I’d like to tell you that I have a writing shed, filled with colour-coordinated shelves of erudite books, framed motivational quotes from literary greats and healthy pot plants.   I’d like to tell you that I squirrel myself away in this tasteful, Instagram-worthy shed for up to eight hours a day and write at least a thousand words in a stint.  I’m thoughtful, considered, committed.  A ‘proper’ writer.

But no.  That’s not me.  I write in my ‘study’ – which is basically the boot room by our back door.  The dog comes in and out relentlessly, as do the kids.  It’s messy, noisy and it’s where I spend most of my days faffing amongst teetering piles of paperwork, trainers and anything that’s been brought in from the garden in a hurry – usually piles of yet-to-be-folded washing, chair cushions, trowels and bags of compost, plus a skateboard I constantly trip over.

In this space, I spend a lot of time doing almost anything to avoid actually writing.  I dither and procrastinate, until (usually about thirty minutes before I have to leave the house, for a school run or social appointment) a tiny snippet of conversation will appear in my mind.  I chink of light into a scene.  Then I will sit and hastily clatter out a thousand words. 

This has always seemed to me to be a terribly shoddy way of working, even though I’ve come more and more to trust the power of my subconscious mind.

I’ve always felt embarrassed – guilty even – because writing is the thing I love doing most.  I’m utterly in love with writing…still, after a quarter of a century doing it for a living.  Surely I should treat it with more respect?  Give myself over more completely?

I’ve always thought that the problem was time.  If only I had more time to write. If only I didn’t have such a busy life and didn’t stack up my life with commitments, then my productivity would go through the roof. 

But in these past three months in lock down, this is what I’ve learnt: That the absolute opposite is true.  OK, so factoring in the issue of us being in the middle of a global pandemic and the stress that it entails (not to mention having three hungry teenagers roaming freely through my workspace),  there’s been no excuse not to work.  There’s been time.  Oodles of time to write, but my productivity has nose-dived.

A friend told me about something Elizabeth Gilbert said.  I can’t find her exact quote, but the gist is that you should treat writing like it’s an illicit lover.  That it’s best to write in snatched, pressurised moments. Write as if you’re being pressed up against a wall having a furtive snog at a dinner party.

And that’s so true.  I’ve realised that I do my best work under pressure. That my mind is firing when I’m busy.  That between phone calls, lunches, shopping, booking holidays, seeing friends, those are the snatched moments where the scenes bursts forth. Without the pressure of normal everyday life, I can’t find my writing mojo.

I’m delighted that now lock-down is going to ease, it won’t be long before I can start to make arrangements (although I know this will annoy the hell out of my husband, who loves being a hermit writer). 

With time being filled again, there’s even the possibility that my long lock-down ‘to-do’ list might finally happen.  One item has already been scratched out, though.  I’m not going to be building a writing shed anytime soon.  I’ll spend the money I’ll save on lunch.  

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The Death Of A Tree

The Death Of A Tree

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Today is a sad day. Today the apple tree in the garden of my childhood home was chopped down, then chipped and removed from the premises – all before 8am.

Or so I heard. I wasn’t there. But if I had been there, what would I have done? Put a hand on the familiar, gnarled knotty trunk, perhaps? Thank the old tree for its service? Hugged it? Yes, I wish I’d had the chance to hug it.

My parents moved to their Victorian semi in 1972 when I was three years old. One of my first memories is of the day we moved in, the mustard swirling carpet, the grubby ceiling tiles. I can recall Nanna plugging in a sparky electric kettle in the corner of the kitchen to make the first of what would be many tens of thousands of cups of tea to be drunk there.

Over the years, the house got decorated and made into a home by our parents, the ceiling tiles replaced by snazzy artex, William Morris print curtains in the lounge, but it was the kitchen that was – and still is – the heart of it.

I can picture my mother by the sink now, apron on looking through the north facing windows at the garage, bemoaning her lack of a view, telling my sister and I to always get a view when we had houses of our own. The garden itself, though, was lovely and made up for the view of the garage. A thick line of fir trees along the back masked the fence that backed onto a school playground and slap bang in the middle of the L-shape of grass, the apple tree, taking up most of the space.

It was already mature by the time we moved in and it always gave me a sense of a link back to previous owners of the house. Its solidity seemed to suggest that the garden was, and always had been, its domain.

It punctuated our year, the buds in May the first indication of summer, and heralding the dusting off of the garden chairs. In the summer, we’d lunch looking at it, play badminton next to it, jumping up to get the shuttlecock from its leafy branches. When we lost all the shuttlecocks, we’d use the hard little apple buds instead. In 1977 when we all went mad for the Queen’s silver jubilee, my June birthday party was a summer fete in the garden, the games laid out in the shade of the tree, red white and blue bunting fluttering from the branches. On my twenty-first birthday, I lay on a tartan rug beneath it and drank champagne, dreaming grand dreams of my future from the security of its shade.

As children, we climbed it constantly. I can picture my sister standing in the crook of the main branch, her flared jeans flapping above me as she reached down to hoist me up in a shower of white and pink blossom. At one point there was a rope ladder up to the main branch. When we had children of our own, they climbed it too and played confetti beneath the boughs.

When the apple tree produced fruit – often in abundant amounts – not one of its green and red treasure was wasted. My parents decreed that every windfall should be collected, regardless of how close they had fallen to the dog poo that Whisky, our characterful West Highland Terrier had left.

I remember standing on a stool to reach the metal sink full of water where the windfalls bobbed or sunk, worms and grubs floating on the top, as we cut out the bruises and holes, salvaging the good bits to be stored in freezer bags in the chest freezer.   The apple tree provided the only ‘proper’ desserts we got in our house. On weekdays, Mum would stew some apples and serve it with the zingy yoghurt she made from the mysterious culture she kept in a jar shrouded in a muslin cloth. Sometimes she’d bake them with raisins and brown sugar in the centre, the skins crinkly, the flesh molten hot. On Sundays, I’d help make the apples into a crumble, sometimes with blackberries from the lane and Dad would crack open a carton of Ideal milk.

Our family’s obsession with the apples didn’t stop there. Throughout the seventies and eighties, there were demi-johns in the back kitchen bubbling away, full of Dad’s apple wine. Undrinkable stuff that got everyone plastered at our teen parties. His experiments with the many ways of using the apples kept coming. When Mum became too infirm to cook, he took it upon himself to make apple soup, which both he and mum assured us was delicious – a culinary experience that has gone down in family folklore with my kids.

In autumn, once all the apples were bagged up in the freezer, Dad, ever practical cut off the shoots, or ‘soldiers’, as we always called them. One year, he tied a bunch of them together to make a broom. It became the staple Halloween prop for a decade. We were always the hosts of the big neighbourhood Halloween party and of course the apples were the central point. Not the windfalls, but the good ones that we saved for bobbing. The fun was to bury our faces in plates full of Smarties in flour and then to kneel by the half-barrel full of water, hands behind our back, trying to skewer the apples with our wonky teeth.

In winter, the apple tree’s branches collected peaks of snow and we had snowball fights under it and admired the robin above us. When Whisky finally died, we dug a big hole under the apple tree to bury him. It was the first time I’d ever seen Dad cry.

The apple tree was also the frame for our family photos. Grainy black and white group shots of uncles in flares, my Nanna in the Lloyd loom chair looking serene, my sister’s wedding portraits all set against the its leafy backdrop. Then there was the time when I missed my junior school photograph day and Mum dressed me up in my ironed uniform on a Saturday and sat me beneath the tree for a photoshoot which the dog wanted to join in too.

When Granny died and Grandpa left South Wales to come and live with us for his final years, our neighbour, an artist painted him in a chair beneath the apple tree. And when my sister and I had babies of our own, five beautiful girls between us, we photographed them in pretty dresses in the crook of the tree. Beloved images that our Mum cherished right to the end when she was bed-bound with Parkinson’s disease.

But now its gone. Dad has been worried about the tree’s health and a tree surgeon stuck an instrument into its trunk and discovered that it was rotten nearly all the way through. In danger of falling on the house, it had to go.

My sister sent me a picture of sad pile of sawdust that Dad had forwarded and I have to admit that I shed a tear. Because losing a tree that you’ve loved all your life is a little bit heart-breaking. A sad reminder that nothing – however seemingly solid – is permanent.

RIP apple tree.

 

 

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Remembering sunny days in Paris

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I’m extremely excited to be sharing the new jacket for The Hidden Wife, which is out in ebook in June and hits the shops in August.  It’s the second in my Stitch In Time trilogy and follows on from The Runaway Daughter.

Evoking Paris in 1928, the era of jazz, fashion, flapper girls and all the fun that went with it was an absolute joy.

I’ve always been in love with Paris, ever since I went there as a teenager and spent ten days one summer wandering around with a boyfriend, soaking in all the sights.  Woody Allen’s ‘Midnight In Paris’ only made me want to write about it more, so I was delighted to be able to set a book there.

This time I roped in my three girls and Emlyn for a research trip. We had so much fun going to the Sacre Couer and Dreyfus, the fabric emporium nearby, which features in the book.  This street is where I chose Vita and Nancy to have their fictional apartment, run by the fearsome consierge, Madame Vertbois.

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My girls at Le Sacre Coeur.

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After her ill-fated fling with Fletch, the sexy trumpeter, Vita has lunch in the famous Cafe de Flore, where we had a sensationally expensive salad for lunch.

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And Les Deux Margots gets a mention too, when Vita and Nancy are exploring the sights of Paris.

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We went to Le Galleries Lafeyette, where Vita goes to buy Marianne a dress and to try on perfume.  As mentioned in the book, I found out a wonderful french word: ‘Sillage’. It refers to how much of your essence you leave behind.  I tried on a particularly pungent perfume and I can tell you, there was plenty of sillage for the rest of the day. Here’s the wonderful dome inside, and the stunning view from the roof.

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As mentioned in the book, we had to try the famous Macrons from Laduree…

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…and chocolate eclairs from Stohrer – all in the name of research!  Tough, huh!

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And here I am at the famous Folies Bergere, where The Hidden Wife starts.

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There were all the other sights, too.  I had to include the splendour of Notre Dame (pictured here in all its glory, just weeks before the devastating fire)

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and the Eiffel Tower, of course gets its own romantic scene.

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In these strange times of lockdown, I do feel lucky to be a writer and to have a world to escape to of my own.  But, oh, how I miss those sunny days in Paris, when we could just mooch around without a care in the world.

If you want to escape to Paris too, The Hidden Wife is out in ebook on 25th June and in UK shops in August.

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New Year, New Book

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It’s so exciting to kick off 2019 with a new book.  I’m delighted to be writing the second in my Stitch In Time Trilogy for Pan Mac.  The first, The Runaway Daughter’ is out in July and I had so much fun writing it, I’m thrilled to be cracking on with the story.  This time, the action is all set in Paris, so I’m having a wonderful time revelling in the hey-day of La Folies Bergere and the Moulin Rouge, when Paris was full of writers, artists and Jazz Musicians.  Just the distraction I need on these cold January days.

 

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THE GIRL FROM LACE ISLAND

So here we are again – publication week.  It´s always a terrifying time for an author and after so many books, it never gets any easier, I can tell you. Which is why it´s so fabulous to get my first review.  This one from the lovely Laura Lockington.

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Oh my goodness! This has to be the perfect beach read. Sophisticated, glamorous, romantic and gripping. And with a rather beautiful cover that you won’t mind being seen with. There are two women, decades apart, their lives tangled with love and betrayal that are unknowingly linked through a tiny exotic island off the coast of India. In 1989, Leila who has known nothing but happiness on Lace Island, helping her mother keep her high flying glamorous guests happy is sent to boarding school in cold grey England. That’s when her troubles really start. Then, in 2016 we meet Jess who dreams of far off places and keeps a tattered poster on her wall of a beach with white sand, blue seas and palm trees. After the death of her best friend she finally gets her dream job as cabin crew, perhaps taking her to those places that she has only ever seen in pictures before. But then she meets the seemingly perfect Blaise, who captures her heart in a whirlwind relationship that catapults her into the world of the unscrupulous super rich. The two women meet up years later under extraordinary circumstances. I defy anyone not to enjoy this epic tale; it will have you reaching for your cold drink under the sun umbrella and slathering suntan lotion on whilst turning the pages. This is a big hearted book that leaves you walking on sunshine.

Joanna Rees will be appearing at The Bookish Supper Salon on September 14 . Tickets from Tabl.com

Read more at: http://brightonandhoveindependent.co.uk/girl-lace-island-joanna-rees/

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So This Is What Happened

If I wasn’t a writer, I wonder what path my life would have taken.  I often think that my dream career would be in radio.  It’s so much fun chatting to people and hearing about their lives.

Which is why I’m delighted to be continuing my guest appearances as an interviewer on Radio Gorgeous. This week I’m talking to the lovely Laurel Lefkow.  She’s curating a fantastic story-telling event in the Omnibus Arts Centre in Clapham.  I went along to meet her and to hear some of the stories and came away enthralled by the power of story telling.  Here’s my piece for Radio Gorgeous.

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The Beach Hut Writing Academy

 

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I’m very proud to be taking part in this fabulous writing event this Saturday, March 12th.

It’s a full-day conference for new & experienced writers, run by the Beach Hut Writing Academy Conference and taking place in the gorgeous Brighton sea front Angel House.

There’ll be plenty going on, including workshops and lunch with bestselling authors, screenwriters, agents and editors, all sharing their insider secrets. Emlyn and I will be chatting about writing together and how to make a career out of writing.

The conference is currently SOLD OUT, but you can join the waiting list for last minute tickets here.

Hope to see you there.

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Emerging from its chrysalis at last

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Today is publication day.  ‘The Very Hungover Caterpillar’ hits the shops and Emlyn and I had a cheeky breakfast to celebrate.  This morning, we were hungover free, I’m pleased to report, but it’s that time of year when the calendar starts to get full of events, parties and dinners.  I always think I won’t drink too much, but I invariably do.  So after years of experience, here’s my top ten tips to surviving the party season.

 

1.  Accept in advance that you’re in it from early December for the entire duration.   There’s no point in fighting it. You’ll finally get to collapse on Boxing Day. Be strong!
2.  A five pm powernap does wonders to restore a flagging spirit.  Insist on forty-five minutes of shut eye and you’ll be fresh as a daisy and ready to party on.
3.  To avoid illness, never party three nights in a row. Lock in rest days and evenings in your schedule.  You may find yourself filling them up (and they may well turn out to be the best party nights of all), but at least try to book in some sofa down-time.
4. Be a social butterfly, then you can flit between parties, or even slope off home.  In order not to get caught out, make it a rule never send emails or engage in social media after dark.
5. Girls:  Invest in those padded party insoles for your high heels and a pair of folding ballet pumps for when the night ends.  It’s amazing that you can dance all night in heels, but the second you have to stagger to the night bus or the last train, you can’t actually walk.
6. Become an account holder at a reputable cab firm now in November, or even better, stash your company’s account details in your phone so you can always get a cab home.
7.  Do all your Christmas shopping online early and get it delivered to somewhere where someone will be in to take the packages.  Keep a list in a safe place, reminding yourself of who gets what.  Share this list with your partner to avoid doubling up.  Don’t leave present buying until the last minute, when you’re frazzled and stressed out and always buy multiple ‘joke’ presents just in case, as you’ll always need them for the relative and friend you forgot, or the office secret santa.
8.  Make sure you you’re stocked up on bread, cheese and supernoodles for  the 2 a.m munchies.  Then, just before you go to bed drink as much water as you can possibly keep down.
9.  Perfect your own tailored hangover cure.  In this house, we favour Berocca, plus a massive fry up.  For those who know Brighton, only a Billie’s Cafe plate of hash will do.
10.  When all else fails, a hair of the dog does work wonders.  Try a Pickleback – one shot of Irish whiskey with one shot of pickle juice as a chaser.  It’s revoltingly harsh, but remember: you’ll be on the wagon in January.
Cheers!

 

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The Very Hungover Caterpillar – cover reveal

Last Christmas, Emlyn and I had a load of fun when Constable & Robinson published We’re Going on a Bar Hunt, a parody of Michael Rosen & Helen Oxenbury’s much loved children’s classic. On Christmas Day, we had loads of messages from people who’d opened up their copy and were enjoying a chuckle.

Newspapers like The Guardian and Telegraph and sites like Huffington Post were kind enough to say things like “hilarious”, “naughty”, “fabulous” and “very funny”.

We loved working with the very talented Gillian Johnson, the brilliant illustrator and decided to do one more. The Very Hungover Caterpillar is a parody of the wonderful kids’ classic The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. Here’s the cover… What do you think?

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The Very Hungover Caterpillar follows the quest of one man as he attempts to shake off his hangover, through eating whatever he can get his hands on, and annoying his family in the process. The research process for this book was long and arduous!

We hope it’s as much fun as the first one and will get a knowing wink from anyone who fondly remembers the original, but has now grown up and knows all too well just how painful hungover days can be . . .

Out on 6th November!

We hope that once again, it’ll make a perfect humorous Christmas present. You can pre-order on Amazon here.

Or share your own book parody titles on Twitter using #bookparodies

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A good old-fashioned achy hand

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When was the last time you had an achy writing hand?  The kind of wrist-flipper that catapults you back to when you last feverishly wrote in your exams?  I have to say, it’s rare for me –  being the speed typist I am –  but it’s good to be reminded occasionally of the sheer joy of handwriting.

Last night at my creative writing event at the Jubilee Library here in Brighton, I was lucky enough to meet a whole room full of enthusiastic writers.

I started off with a timed writing exercise, following a set of rules.  I first stumbled on these writing rules when I read Natalie Goldberg’s ‘Writing Down the Bones.’  She’s also written a fabulous book, ‘Wild Mind:  Living The Writer’s Life’.  Her idea is a simple one: that is the more you practice writing, the better you get at accessing your creative mind.  The idea is to write FAST, in a timed session, with no censorship.

There are SIX rules for writing practice.

  1. Keep your hand moving.  No matter what.  Even if you write banana, banana, banana, the idea is that you will outsmart the editor in you which is telling you that this is ridiculous and you’ll get to the good stuff.  You must not stop writing for the time allocated.  SPEED is everything.
  1. Don’t cross out.  That’s editing as you’re writing.  Even if you’ve written something you didn’t mean to.  Leave it.  Nobody is going to judge you.
  1. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar.  Don’t even care about writing straight on the page.  Just keep going.
  1. Be Specific.  Use your senses.  Use colour, textures, sounds.  Use different nouns and verbs to bring your sentences zinging to life.  If you write a generic sentence, don’t worry, just make the next one better.
  1. Lose Control and Don’t think. Stick with your first thoughts, not your thoughts on your first thoughts.  Stay with the words you’ve chosen.  Follow your instinct. Let it rip.  Go where the writing takes you.
  1. Go for the jugular.  If something comes up in your writing that it scary or naked, dive right in.  It probably has lots of energy.

The group wrote for ten minutes and I gave them the words ‘The First Time’ as a jump point.  All sorts of wonderful tales came out.  I particularly liked one woman’s description of her first cigarette and the hellish relationship she’s had with cigarettes ever since.

At the end of ten minutes, everyone had achy hands, but everyone agreed that they felt better for the exercise.

Try it.  You might enjoy it.

My next creative writing session is on September 13th here in Brighton.  The course runs from 10.30-3pm and is £99 including a gourmet lunch.  Please contact me to book your place.

 

 

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