Vicky Newham


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J K Rowling talks to Val McDermid

It was a muggy Friday evening, 18th July 2014 to be precise, and several hundred people had assembled outside the stunning Royal Hall in Harrogate to see J K Rowling in conversation with Val McDermid about her Robert Galbraith crime novels. For me, this event, which was part of the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, was an opportunity not to be missed. Others will have been Harry Potter fans, Galbraith fans, J K fans, whatever. Or just curious about the woman who became a publishing and multi-media phenomenon years ago. And I am in this last category. I haven’t read Potter, the films weren’t for me, I didn’t buy the Casual Vacancy and Galbraith’s novels aren’t quite my kind of crime fiction. But I adore J K Rowling and have a huge amount of admiration for her.

J K came on stage in a beautiful grey suit and salmon tie. It was a humorous nod to her male writing identity and looked sharp and fresh. Humour and wit are things which ooze from J K, and both appeal to me. What was evident from the start of the interview was that Val and J K have a good rapport and a mutual respect. They also share an editor. She mentioned how delighted she’d been at Val McDermid’s comments on The Cuckoo’s Calling, and how she’d written to Val as Galbraith to thank her, and a second time as J K Rowling once her identity came out. Asked about her choice of pen name, J K said that ‘Robert’ was one of her favourite male names, and that she’d had a thing about the name ‘Galbraith’ since childhood. Regarding her protagonist’s name, Cormoran is the name of a Cornish giant, which appealed to her, and she wanted the character to have a name which people would get wrong. She hates her own name, Rowling, as it’s so often mis-pronounced (to rhyme with growling … instead of Rowling, as in bowling). Names. They seem to be important to JK.

I was stunned when she said that she’d read hardly any fantasy novels when she wrote Harry Potter, but one of the main things which strikes me (sorry!) about J K is that her imagination has an extraordinary quality to it, and I find this fascinating and compelling. She emphasised how much she’s always loved crime fiction, citing Marjorie Allingham and Agatha Christie as her Golden Age favourites and Val and Mark Billingham as her contemporary ones. I thought she seemed a little nervous, talking about contemporary crime authors, and I was surprised she couldn’t think of some others but a) perhaps she simply went blank, and b) maybe she prefers the Golden Age writers, either of which is forgivable.

Regarding the Cormoran Strike novels, she said she has the story arc planned for over seven more novels. I know a lot about Cormoran, she said, nodding her head slowly, as if she’d been rifling through MI5 files. She referred to herself as being ‘obsessive’ and mentioned that she does detailed planning and research, using a colour coded system to keep track of plot strands, before she starts writing. This enables her to focus on the writing aspect once she starts. She likes to get details right and ‘sneaks around’, doing research. To indicate the extent of her desire for accuracy she mentioned the tomes she has in her house on forensics, body decomposition and insects, and recalled a time when she took her husband for breakfast at a café to check the specifics of the menu. She joked about how, for a few moments in the café, she thought she’d been recognised until the person said ‘Nah, I wouldn’t know what she looked like’. Whilst she laughed about this episode, and said at the start of the interview that she would never complain about the hype around being ‘J K Rowling’, I got the impression that she feels ambivalent it.

When asked about the decision to use a pseudonym, J K said that it was simply to prove to herself that she could get a crime novel published on the strength of the book alone. She has, of course, said this publicly before … and whilst people have questioned it, saying it was all a big publicity campaign, I actually believe her. Despite her enormous success as a writer, she came across as being just as doubt-ridden and validation-seeking as most writers (and if it was a PR campaign, it was a good one!). She said that she’s enjoying basing the Galbraith books in reality after the fantasy of ‘Potterverse’. She said that the plot for Silkworm had been in her head for about six years, but that she wrote The Cuckoo’s Calling to introduce Strike via a less elaborate story. Silkworm is the most complex plot she’s ever written. So, for the future, we can expect more Galbraith novels. J K is also working on the script for Fantastic Beasts. This is a trilogy of Harry Potter spin off films, set 70 years prior to the arrival of Potter and his peers at the Hogwarts. She has many more novels that she wants to write, these are her passion. She admits to having a restlessness in her imagination, and it’s clear that it’s partly this that drives her to keep writing. She is a canny business woman but she obviously adores writing. I anticipate more surprises from J K in the future, and I admire this about her. Despite her success with Potter, she is clearly still driven, and says ‘The One is still shining in front of me’. I liked that. There is something childlike and innocent about it.

To me, J K came across as open, warm and honest – and very down to earth. She said that with every book she’s got bogged down in plot strands and thought, ‘This is utter crap’. That when this happens she takes the day off and then returns the next day and reads the whole manuscript through from start to finish.

I was lucky enough to land a compooter-generated-but-very-jammy front row seat for this event which was very lovely but what was extremely weird was that at the start of the interview a huge spider came crawling over the floor from the stage to where my sandal-ed feet and bag were. This was extremely distracting, and resulted in me wriggling and trying to suppress squeals for ten minutes whilst fearing I was going to be thrown out of the venue – or worse, told off by either J K or Val (oh gawd, imagine the shame!). Fortunately a kind lady a few seats down picked it up and moved it to the side. Please, someone, tell me that spiders are lucky…?!

This event was strictly controlled. No photography was allowed, and book signings were done row by row. The photography ban bugged me a bit (a few snaps are fine, surely? Obviously video is a no, no) but it didn’t surprise me. Overall, I am pleased I have seen J K talk about her books and writing. It’s such a cliché to say that I found her inspiring … but I really did. I get the impression that she knows what she’s good at, and what she needs help with, and I think that shows good judgement and an honesty with herself. But more than anything, she came across as an extremely nice person.

 

Vicky Newham © 2014


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The London Short Story Festival 2014

The window at Waterstones, Piccadily

The window at Waterstones, Piccadily

I saw this event advertised some months back and followed the promo on social media. When the programme was announced I knew that many events, especially the workshops, would sell out quickly so I booked up the sessions I wanted via the early booking facility. I could only afford to go for one day and I found it hard to decide which day but in the end I plumped for Saturday. It is the first time the festival has been run and, as a short story aficionado, I wanted to learn as much as possible but also support the event, organisers and contributors.

With such amazing events, it was hard to choose what to book.

With such amazing events, it was hard to choose what to book.

 

I headed into London and made my way from Victoria station to Waterstones Piccadily on a shiny, black No 38 Routemaster, clutching a sandwich for the bus (breakfast) and one for lunch.

Lovely boards around the store

Lovely boards around the store

Someone has very neat writing!

Someone has very neat writing!

 

My first event was a workshop with Clare Wigfall, the winner of the BBC National Short Story Award. What attracted me to Clare’s event was that she likes to use characters that aren’t based on herself and says that she rarely writes from her own experience, preferring to jump around in time and place with them. Given that I am doing this in my WIP I wanted to see what I could learn.

 

 

 

 

The workshop was on idea and character development. We chose a photograph and then invented a character around someone in the image. Mine was (I discovered at the end) set near the Israel/Palestine border, taken in 2007, with the boys looking over Bethlehem.

Clare Wigfall (left)

Clare Wigfall (left)

 

Photo from the Magnum website

Photo originally from the Magnum website

I have done this exercise before but always enjoy it. Clare mentioned how photographs and short stories have a lot in common: both are snapshots in time, and with both we don’t know what has happened before or after the frame. One piece of advice she gave was to really take time to think about your stories and characters, and not put pressure on yourself, that thinking is as much part of the process as the actual writing.

The next event was The Short Story Gatekeepers with (from left to right in the photograph below, Ruby Cowling, author, the first on the left) Di Speirs from BBC radio, Jen Hamilton Emery from Salt Publishing, Vanessa Gebbie as Chair, Claire Shanahan from Booktrust, Carrie Kania from Conville & Walsh,and Jacques Testard from the White Review. Proceedings kicked off with a reading from Ruby who has recently won the White Review Short Story prize. If ever you wanted an example of a unique voice, Ruby had it in her reading.

The various 'gatekeepers'

The various ‘gatekeepers’

Discussion started with what puts the panel off a submission. Cue discussion of spelling, syntax, grammar, clichés, and entry / submission requirements. The nugget here was that editors and agents are looking for reasons to stop reading your work so the writer has to give them reasons to read right to the end. They all mentioned how many entries always come in on the deadline day, suggesting either that we writers take huge care to get things right or are a nation of last minuters! What came across from the panel was how enthusiastic they all are about the short story. They agreed that it is helpful for writers to enter competitions and awards, that these can open doors and attract attention.

The third event was Stories from the Heart, and the panel and readers included (from left to right in the photograph below) Roshi Fernando, Mary Costello, Anita Sethi as chair, and Jacob Ross.

Authors who write stories which stay with you

Authors who write stories which stay with you

As soon as Roshi started talking about her collection, Homesick, and how all the stories are about people trying to find their identity, I knew I’d have to take a copy home with me.

Roshi Fernando, reading from Homesick.

Roshi Fernando, reading from Homesick.

Mary Costello

Mary Costello

Jacob Ross

Jacob Ross

The authors discussed their writing process, something I can listen to for hours. Some set out to achieve something specific with their writing (Jacob Ross said that he likes to challenge our moral compass) whilst Mary Costello says that she likes to let the stories emerge and gets no peace until she’s written them.

 

 

My last event was with Claire Keegan. She was talking to Paul McVeigh about her writing, doing a Q&A and a reading. For me this was the absolute highlight of the day. I hadn’t previously heard of Claire but when she started reading from her remarkable story, Foster, I found myself intermittently making sharp intakes of breath, laughing, glugging down lumps in my throat and nodding a lot. I sometimes find that readings don’t do much for me but I’m pretty sure that Claire’s blew the entire audience away. It is quite a personal thing to say [but a) it’s meant positively, and b) writing and reading one’s work is personal] but Claire’s voice, accent and intonation all gave the excerpt extraordinary life. When Paul introduced her, he said that Foster was the story that switched him back on to writing again after a long break. This was enough to arouse my curiosity. I love it when things touch us so deeply that we are propelled into action.

Claire, reading from her remarkable short story, Foster.

Claire, reading from her remarkable short story, Foster.

Some of the things that Clare said about writing made me hold my breath. I won’t include them all here. In text, they might seem ordinary but at the time they felt extraordinary and still do when I read my notes  back.  I was interested to hear that she always stays in the present with her characters and never knows what’s going to happen to them but that she gets to the point where she ‘feels an ending coming on’. She describes her writing as ‘physical prose’, saying that she likes to be her characters. She said she that all good stories are about pain and loss, or about someone wanting something. She said that desire enters the body through the eyes. Her advice when writing characters different to oneself, is to lock onto the set of desires influencing the person.

Paul McVeigh, the Festival Director, introduced all the events in the main area. The whole day he was running around, greeting people, making sure they were okay, and bringing out the best in them.

Paul, in his role as a wonderful host.

Paul, in his role as host.

This was the first London Short Story Festival and what a stonking success it was. The spacious, multi-floor Waterstones venue worked well. It is, of course, a perfect and natural combo: bookshop and writing event. I can also highly recommend the banana loaf with chocolate chips.

If this year’s festival was anything to go by, I’m looking forward to next year’s event already.

Vicky Newham © 2014


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The debut author panels at CrimeFest 2014

Having just realised that I went to 20 panels at the weekend and wrote 42 sides of notes, I’m going to break up my blog posts. This one covers the debut author panels. It is, of course, a personal summary of what touched and inspired me.

Some of the photographs are better than others: photography wasn’t easy in one of the rooms as the panel was positioned with windows behind them, hence the dark pics in some instances, or use of ones from when the panels were setting up.

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I find these sessions fascinating for a number of reasons and it is such a pleasure to see and hear authors, whose first novel has recently been published, talking about them with passion and excitement. When they mention how long they’ve been writing for or how long they’ve dreamed of seeing a novel in print with their name on it, it fills me with joy for them. I also find it interesting to hear what their influences are, and how their backgrounds and jobs inform or have enabled their novel writing.

Thursday’s panel kicked off this year’s convention. Authors were: AK Benedict, Ray Celestin, VM Giambanco, Sarah Hilary and David Thorne, with Jake Kerridge as moderator. I’d met Alexandra and Sarah for the first time last year at CrimeFest, and it is particularly lovely that since then both of their novels have been published and are doing extremely well.

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There was something on this panel for everyone and book settings included Essex, Seattle and Cambridge. I enjoyed hearing about the authors’ backgrounds and how these led up to, and have contributed to, their novel writing. Here we had a highly creative bunch of writers with backgrounds including film editing, music composition, and comedy writing.

Discussion turned to how their plots came about and what clinched their choice of location. David said that moving to Essex prompted his plot and how one of its themes is whether people can ever escape their origins. Valentina discussed her wish for a setting that offered both urban landscape and wilderness (Seattle). Her detective is the new girl on the squad, which I think sets up an exciting dynamic. Alexandra’s time travelling serial killer had me dashing off to the bookshop despite having The Beauty of Murder on my kindle. She was captivating to listen to and I predict huge success for her. Ray’s book is based partially on a true story of an unsolved crime, which interests me in terms of the necessary weaving of fiction and fact. Sarah said that when she devised her plot she wanted to write about domestic abuse, not as a polemic but through story, to make readers question what they know.

Friday’s panel included: MJ Arlidge, Mason Cross, Jake Woodhouse, Kate Griffin and Colette McBeth, with Jake as moderator again. It was interesting to hear about how the authors got published and also whether they told anyone they were writing a novel and hoping to get it published (two of them didn’t).

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Kitty Peck and the Music Hall Murders is the book that resulted from a competition win with Stylist magazine and Faber by Kate Griffin. Her protagonist stood out for me: Kitty, the ‘naïve but ballsy’ seventeen year old trapeze artist in an East End music hall in Victorian Times. I have a feeling that this book is going to grab people’s imaginations. Mason mentioned that luck had helped him to get published: he posted work on the website, Authonomy, and was contacted by an agent. He calls it ‘luck’ but the fact is he wrote the piece that was spotted and took a gamble. His writing has been compared to that of Lee Child.

MJ says he was influenced by Stieg Larsson and Larsson’s protagonist, Lisbeth Salander. He has nursery rhymes as the titles of his books in a nod to James Patterson. Jake discussed how James Ellroy’s American Tabloid had influenced him. In his (Jake’s) novel he has three characters, each of whom has equal weight in the narrative. Colette said that Precious Thing is a book about ‘appearances’, and how things are often not as they seem or as they are presented. She said that she’d had the story in her head since she left university. Colette took a Faber Academy novel writing course which she said was very good. The panel also discussed how much research they did. Most of them said ‘very little’, and commented on how research can be a displacement activity and distraction.

The panel on Saturday had: Clare Donoghue, Matthew Frank, Rob Gittins, Claire Kendal and Paul Mendelson, with Laura Wilson as moderator.

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Clare, an ex-lawyer, talked about writing Never Look Back whilst she was doing an MA Creative Writing and said that her journey to publication has been quick. She was one of two debut authors I heard say they map out their plot using a spreadsheet. Rob Gittins writes for a range of TV dramas and has come up with an ingenious witness protection plot. Claire Kendal teaches English and Creative Writing. She said that her novel, The Book of You, is a homage to Samuel Richardson’s book, Clarissa. It exaggerates the common phenomenon of unwanted attention into stalking, which often has an inbuilt escalation to it. She said she wanted the voice of her protagonist, Clarissa, to be fevered and intense. The way that Claire spoke about this book got me scuttling off to Foyles again, and I even broke my hardback rule in the process!

What I found interesting on this panel was that whereas Clare said that her path to publication had been quite quick, Claire and Rob talked about a more protracted process. I think this shows how different everyone’s experiences can be and that it’s important to have no expectations when you’re writing. Furthermore, that you have to be prepared to be in it for the long haul and the sheer love of writing.

Paul had success early on with a script he wrote, but said it took him a while (and twelve non-fiction books) to find his fiction voice. He chose to set his book in South Africa, a place he’s stayed in. Matthew described his protagonist detective who is just starting in CID. This is a fresh take on things, a departure from the popular Detective Inspector, and will open up interesting possibilities for his character as well as creating challenges for him. I’m curious to know more.

Sunday’s panel included: Neil Broadfoot, James Carol, Charlotte Williams, Emma Kavanagh and Rebecca Muddiman, with Laura Wilson as moderator again.

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The backgrounds of these authors definitely made me prick up my ears as three of them overlap with passions and interests of my own. James is a horse trainer and riding instructor and Emma has been a psychologist with the police and military, specialising in trauma. Charlotte has worked as a psychotherapist, and sings and plays folk music. Emma talked eloquently about how there are many degrees of normal, and how different people’s reaction can be to a situation, hence choosing a plane crash for her novel, Falling. Emma, like Clare Donoghue, also mentioned using a spreadsheet to map out her plots.

James didn’t mention that he had any horses in his book but Charlotte talked about how the stories of Raymond Chandler, and her training, made her interested in having a female protagonist in a room and an attractive man comes in as the set-up for her story. She wanted to examine how normal people can be driven to murder. Neil had the audience oooh-ing when he said that he had interest from a publisher via a tweet when he was shortlisted for the Dundee prize.

Rebecca completed an MA Creative Writing. She has won two acclaimed writing competitions, the second of which resulted in her publishing deal. She discussed writing about an experience which she’s not gone through, that of being a mother, and how she then had to extend this to how a mother would feel if their child was kidnapped.

These were my panel-inspired purchases. I am looking forward to reading all three.

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In many ways the backgrounds and writing experience of these twenty authors couldn’t have been more varied but they also had a number of things in common: they all came accross as highly creative, for one; some of them had studied writing formally, some hadn’t; and some of them plan in a highly detailed way whilst others plunge in. What struck me most, however, was their commitment to their projects and to writing the best story they could.

Vicky Newham © 2014


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Whit Lit 2014 – what a way to start!

This weekend saw the inaugural Whitstable Literary Festival – or Whit Lit, as it has been affectionately called. And, wow, what a way to start a festival! It’s been a long time in the planning stages, in the capable hands of Victoria Falconer as Festival Director, Marnie Summerfield Smith and their team.

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I can’t comment on the specifics of the whole festival, only the events I attended. What I can say though on a general level is that the buzz around Whit Lit has been incredible. The Horsebridge Centre on the weekend was packed with people attending events, and chatting excitedly on the stairs about what they’d been to or were on their way to. In my Psychology class this morning, before we got stuck into attachment theory, my students were all talking about the wonderful variety of events and how well attended they’d been.

I attended four public events in total. On Friday I went to How to Get Published with two literary agents, Julia Churchill and Joanna Swainson. I knew of both agents from Twitter, and was interested in meeting Joanna as I’d read that she represents various genres of writing and likes crime fiction. I went to a similar talk at the London Book Fair 2013 and so some of the information I knew already but it was an excellent, informative session. I wrote down in my notepad yet again how much of a ‘company’, multi-department decision it is now to publish a book, rather than it being about what an editor likes. I definitely think that an agent is essential in the current publishing climate with ever new forms of rights and royalties requiring negotiation. Julia covered what an agent does and Joanna talked about the submission process.

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I was lucky to be invited to the launch drinks on Friday evening in the Somerset Maugham gallery. The atmosphere here was wonderful. Everyone I spoke to was so enthusiastic about the event and full of appreciation and admiration for Victoria and her team for making the festival happen.

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On Saturday I was at the Transformers panel, with DE Meredith, Wendy Wallace and Lloyd Shepherd, and Andrew McGuiness as chair.

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All three write historical fiction, with Denise and Lloyd doing historical crime fiction. My interest was partially in the crime writing side but also in some of the characteristics and scientific developments of the Regency and Victorian eras which provide the backdrop for all their novels. Funnily enough, the one book I bought wasn’t one of the crime novels. It was Wendy Wallace’s The Painted Bridge. I’d looked up Wendy’s books before the talk and had seen that this book was set in a private asylum for women. As a psychologist this captured my imagination. When Wendy referred to the book as being about ‘woman becoming’ it clinched my purchase.

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The three authors each read an excerpt from their books, and described how they perceive their work. They also talked about how they came to start writing and how they approach their novel-writing. Denise talked about the morally driven murders of The Devil’s Ribbon and, this, and its Irish setting, made me add it to my wish list. All three of them came across as really lovely people and I could have listened to them for hours. During questions, I asked the panel whether they plotted their books before writing and it was fascinating to hear how different they all were.

In the evening it was the turn of the Great British Gothic (film) with the Barry Forshaw and Christopher Fowler.

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I’ve seen Barry at other events and his knowledge always comes across as encyclopaedic. This was a whistle stop tour through early gothic, with its camp sensibilities, and Hammer films, Frankenstein and the vampire movies. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing were discussed, also Deborah Carr and Laurence Olivier. Barry mentioned how sex and violence have been linked for decades in films, and how Peter Cushing always played amoral characters. I asked whether films have mixed genres in the way that commercial fiction is increasingly doing. Barry said that genres have to cross-fertilise to survive. I also asked whether technological advances and special effects have enhanced storytelling or sidelined it, and whether storytelling is as important in film as in fiction. They both agreed that the story is key. Phew. Christopher cited Jason and the Argonauts as an example of a film with a great story and fabulous computer generated effects. What was wonderful about this event was that Barry and Christopher clearly share a passion for film, and enjoy talking to each other, as is evident in my photograph of the two of them sharing a joke. I forced myself to choose between Barry’s book on the Gothic film and his one on British Crime films. I opted for this one, as it relates to an essay I’m doing for my MA, on feminist theory and crime drama.

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My final event, on Sunday evening, was John Gordon Sinclair – the actor turned crime writer – talking to Andrew McGuiness. John was very funny, and came across as candid, full of insight and passionate about his writing. He said that writing gives him control over what he creates in a way that acting doesn’t, but that when a story comes to mind he sees it as a film in his mind and often acts out scenes in his hut at home at the bottom of the garden (which has a sofa and a fridge, drool). I found it fascinating to hear John discuss some of the themes in his novels and how he likes to explore phenomena, places and experiences which are new to him. His themes include: differing reasons for violence; how our past affects who we become; love; what he calls ‘dark politics’; collusion.

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From the brief conversations I’ve had with people about some of the other Whit Lit events, I gather they were a roaring success. Whitstable is definitely a suitable place for a literary festival. With its abundance of creatives and pretty seaside location, I am just surprised that one hasn’t been going here for years. Well, that has been rectified now and I have a feeling that Whit Lit will go from strength to strength. I, for one, will be happy to help out with next year’s and will be buying the full pass rather than individual tickets. As ever at these events, I met in person a number of people whom I ‘know’ from Twitter. In this case it was several fellow Whistabubblians. Aw.

Vicky Newham © 2014