Thursday, 24 December 2009

Listening for the angels...

I am done with shopping. I have totally had enough of overheated department stores, juggling bags and gloves and overpackaged purchases to get my credit card out. Again. And again. I am heartily sick of hearing endless budget karaoke versions of 'Santa Baby' and 'Fairytale of New York' and am now craving space and silence and still, frosty woodland so that I can pick up that invisible thread that connects us all down thousands of years of Christmases.

Am going out to cut holly and clear my head of vile twenty-first century commercialism and take time to be grateful for all that I have (eg. lovely family, all of you, ten thousand reasonably workable words of a book that has to be in in January) And not worry about the things I haven’t got (enough wrapping paper, a present for the bin men, the particular kind of Lancashire cheese my mother likes.)

Wishing you all peace, love, health and hope this Christmas. And a big tin of Roses chocolates, of course.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

First I do Christmas and then I conquer the world....

The one good thing about having a party on the 18th December is that it forces you to tidy away all the clutter beforehand, and give the house a thorough cleaning afterwards. Spent much of Saturday washing sofa covers and scrubbing the kitchen (don't ask) with the result that everywhere is now looking unnaturally tidy, gleaming and like the home of someone who is in control of the whole Christmas juggernaut.

Of course, this is all a complete illusion, but at least after a last frantic shopping day yesterday the daughters are roughly equal in present terms. This is an annual challenge; balancing the number of parcels to be unwrapped with both the 'wow factor' and the amount spent, and having three girls makes it particularly challenging. Choosing sparkly fripperies that are equal in charm and value and yet still distinctly original and well-suited to the daughter in question requires a range of skills that you could only possibly hope to find if you melted together the brains of a management accountant, a psychologist, Kofi Anan and one of those style journalists who do annoying London-centric shopping features in Sunday magazines.

Anyway, in the midst of all this it's been fabulous to discover that so many people took the time out of their own festive preparations to answer the competiton question for a chance to win a copy of Powerful Italian Penniless Housekeeper (and it's also been gorgeous to get your messages in the emails too.) The daughters picked two winners each from an empty Quality Street box, and the names that came out are... Peggy, Jacqueline, Kelly, Jayne H, Sri and Susan. I'll email you later to get addresses and put the books in the post (where they'll no doubt spend a quiet Christmas, but hopefully arrive soon after.)

Am now off to look for something to give the children for breakfast. This year I very cunningly booked my Sainsburys online shop well in advance and felt enormously smug and in control. However, when it was delivered on Sunday I remembered that I'd only ordered bizarre seasonal items like dill sauce, mini-sausages-wrapped-in-bacon and 300 lemons and there isn't a box of Cheerios in sight.

(I wonder what toast and brandy butter is like?)

Thursday, 17 December 2009

If I ignore it, maybe it'll go away. (Oh, and a competition question)

The only thing I’ve written this week is a poem for daughter #3 to perform in the Christmas talent show at school. As creative output goes this is undeniably rubbish. Like the poem.

PTA Christmas dinner last night, and daughter #2’s carol service in church this evening, followed by pub with fellow mums and members of the 'Victims of Christmas Support Group'. In my life this is what passes for what, in magazines they call ‘The Party Season.’

Anyway, back to Powerful Italian Penniless Housekeeper, and Tuscany where it’s warm and there are no queues in the supermarket. Looking back at the soundtrack from the book on my ipod I’m reminded of something I probably should have mentioned last time because it occupies such a central place in the story, and that’s the recurring symbol of the moon. This was there from the earliest stages of the idea, when for some reason I decided that Sarah’s five year old daughter would have a bit of a fascination with all things lunar (Long before I started writing the book I scribbled down a couple of lines of dialogue on a dinner money slip while sitting in the school car park . ‘Mummy, when I grow up I want to be an astronaut.’ ‘And I want to be a rich man’s plaything, but life doesn’t always work out how we want it to.’ This made a brief appearance in various chapters at various times but never quite fit properly and so didn’t end up in the final book, but Sarah and Lottie’s characters, and their relationship, were built around it.) When I came to thinking about the film Lorenzo had just completed it made sense to bring the astrological/lunar theme into that as well, and without really thinking too hard it seemed to weave its way into the fabric of the story.

And the music, of course. This is a song with which I became very,very familiar during The Laura Ashley years because it was on one of the compilation CDs they played in a constant loop. I still like it though, and for obvious reasons it definitely needed a place on this playlist. Other astrology/moon related songs were Sleeping Satellite by Tasmin Archer (you can see an orrery in the video, which is something I also put in the book), Moon River (REM rather than Henry Mancini) and Song to the Moon by Dvorak. I used the Katharine Jenkins version, which is in English, and the spirit of which definitely inspired the Venice-at-nighttime part of the book.

Sour Times by Portishead was the first song on the playlist. For me this summed up the bad place Sarah was in at the start of the book, with her seven-year relationship with Lottie’s philandering father at an end and her self-esteem in tatters. I also discovered this beautiful song by Natalie Merchant which I played to death but never got tired of.

The lines ‘I’ve been treated so wrong I’ve been treated so long As if I’m becoming untouchable’ seemed to be very true of Sarah, and the poignant atmosphere of resignation absolutely sums up her outlook on life and her low expectations for her own happiness.

Try a Little Tenderness, by Otis Redding was, I suppose, Lorenzo’s response to that. And it is such a GREAT song.

As the book was about an Italian film director it was a great excuse to listen endlessly to the soundtrack to Cinema Paradiso, one of the best films ever. (Here’s Josh Groban giving the love theme his treatment.) I also admit that the final scene in my book was very much inspired by the ending of the film…

(Although since getting my author copies I’ve spotted a copy-editing error which, to me, totally ruins the big emotional climax! There’s supposed to be a page break in one of the final pages, which balances the pace or something crucial like that and without it it all feels a bit rushed and tensionless. My fault for not going through my proofs carefully enough. Shall have to go into shops and hand-correct as many copies as possible.)

Talking of author copies I have some to give away. As this is a simultaneous release in the US and the UK I have both Presents and Modern editions, so I'm giving away three of each. If you'd like a copy just email me via the website (still not updated, but it's on my list of things to do, after lose a stone, climb Everest and train the daughters to work the dishwasher) with the answer to this question and I'll pick the winners in my usual random fashion:

Which sixteenth century scientist is the subject of Lorenzo's film? *
*(There's a good introduction to him here. Never let it be said this blog isn't educational.)
On that intellectual note I'm going to go drag myself around the supermarket. Did I mention that daughter #1, AKA the Teenage Drama Queen, somehow managed to persuade us to let her have a party? Tomorrow? As if Christmas wasn't stressful enough.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

At last... Introducing Lorenzo and Sarah from Powerful Italian Penniless Housekeeper

So, the cheese and pineapple cubes were oddly satisfying. Stress-levels had reached critical point by the time I finally returned home from the supermarket with my tinned pineapple chunks and rubbery mild cheddar, but the half hour it took me to spear them with cocktail sticks was fabulously therapeutic. Am not really a fan of the cheese-and-tropical-fruit combination myself, but have to admit there's something about eating bitesized bits off a cocktail stick that makes you consume stuff you wouldn't usually bother with. Am wondering if it might be a good way to get the children to eat sprouts and Christmas pudding this year.

Anyway, pineapple and cheese on sticks don't actually feature in Powerful Italian, Penniless Housekeeper so I'd better move on and get down to business. Just to re-cap, this was the book I started writing this time last year, when I was still a bit shell-shocked from the bleakness of Tristan and Lily's story and in need of some light relief.

I can't remember when or how I first came up with the idea of a book about a thirty-ish single mother enduring the ordeal of her younger, prettier, more successful sister's wedding but I do know that, with it's slightly larger cast of characters and inherently rom-com tone, I originally thought it would make a good Modern Heat. However, after Tristan and Lily this was exactly what I wanted to write, so gave the basic premise a few significant tweaks and indulgently steamed ahead.

From the outset the book had a very different atmosphere from the ones I'd written before and to reflect this I needed a hero who was a little bit unusual, a little less hard and handsome and polished than his predecessors. If you remember I was initially thinking of casting a young and brooding Marco Pierre White in the role, but unfortunately he failed to grasp that he was merely there for visual guidance and his immensely strong character and flat Yorkshire vowels kept imposing themselves onto the character of Lorenzo to an unacceptable degree. I’m afraid in the end he had to go and Keanu Reeves, in his battered, grey-streaked and world-weary forties very admirably took his place.

Lorenzo Cavalleri is an Italian film director who, from humble beginnings, has achieved huge commercial and financial success and been married to an actress widely acknowledged as the most beautiful woman in the world. The trouble is, none of this has brought him any happiness. As the book opens he is newly divorced and getting ready for the release of his latest film - a sexed-up blockbuster about the life of sixteenth century scientist Galileo, starring his ex-wife and the pretty-boy actor with whom she had an affair during filming. It is Lorenzo’s darkest hour, and he is forced to confront the creative cost of his success. In a desperate attempt to regain some glimmer of artistic integrity and self-respect he travels to Oxfordshire to check out the locations for a project he has wanted to do for years; a film of a little known, lyrical book by a dead poet called Francis Tate.

If the book has a theme I guess it would be authenticity. Lorenzo works in an industry which is all about artifice, but he is a man who prizes authenticity above all else. When he meets Sarah he is knocked sideways by her artlessness and while she might see herself as pitifully unsophisticated, to Lorenzo she is a breath of fresh air and someone who can restore his faith in life and women as well as giving him back his creative vision.

One of the things that sets this book apart from the others is that, for me, it’s very much Sarah’s story. Usually when I start planning and writing a book the hero is the most dominant presence in it, the character that dictates the mood and the action, but I felt very much when I was writing this one that it was all about Sarah. And of course, Sarah represents all of us. I think more than any other heroine I’ve written she is the most grounded in reality and embodies the most recognisable bits of myself and my friends, which made her very easy and hugely enjoyable to write. It also made me really, really want to create a strong and worthy hero for her - a man who would understand her buried sadness and appreciate her generous, curvy beauty.

(Not much to ask, is it?)

On that wistful note I'd better go and join the queue at the post office. Back on Thursday with music and a competition question.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow...

Back from a weekend away on His home ground in South Oxfordshire, delivering presents to grandparents and godchildren. Driving through postcard-pretty villages with brick-and-flint churches, duckponds and ancient pubs I was reminded at every turn of Powerful Italian, Penniless Housekeeper (the first part of which was very specifically set there.)

Unfortunately I was also reminded of my utter failure to blog about the book and its background and characters as promised last week, and came back up the M40 full of virtuous resolutions to do it first thing this morning. (Or at least after I'd been to the supermarket, the post office and the dry cleaners.) However, a phonecall just now from the lovely and long-suffering secretary at Daughter #3's school, gently reminding me that it's the Juniors' Christmas party this afternoon and that I need to bring in party clothes and 50 cheese and pineapple cubes on cocktail sticks has turned my resolutions to ashes.

(Cheese and pineapple cubes? Does anyone eat those these days? And do I have to fashion them into a retro-style hedgehog?)

Back tomorrow. Honest.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Group Hug

Thanks to everyone who held my hand and offered advice on my mini-crisis last week – I’m hugely grateful, and relieved to say that it’s all looking a bit more positive now (thanks to you guys, a bottle of wine and an hour long call to Abby Green’s Writers’ Helpline.) I’m not actually that much further on in terms of word count, but I now have a stupidly detailed outline. And I’m not afraid to use it.

As of today I also have a big box of paperback copies of Powerful Italian, Penniless Housekeeper, which is out in both the US and UK in January. That means that next week I can seize that as an excuse to take time out from doing battle with the book I haven’t yet written to blog about one that I have! Excellent!

(This is my Italian film director book. Do you want to see what it looks like? It has Ricky Gervaise on the cover!)