Intrigued by this photo? Anyone who is in the Colchester area this evening (Wednesday, 13th January), come along and find out more. My talk for Lexden History Group is entitled For the Love of Silk and will describe how my family’s remarkable 300 years of weaving silk has influenced my novels. http://www.lexdenhistory.org.uk/program-of-events/4580505205. Just £3 for non members including refreshments. What a deal!
I’m really quite a tidy person, though from this photo you probably don’t believe me. I was tempted to tidy up before taking the photo but then thought: why not tell it like it really is? So here it is, mess and all.
I love having a dedicated office but don’t like to be shut away so the door is always open unless it’s mid-winter and I want to preserve heat. It’s on the ground floor too, so I can hear people around the house and smell what’s cooking. The window faces out onto the front garden so I can see people coming to the front door.
By the keyboard is my trusty Moleskine notebook. I get through one or two for each novel, and they are with me wherever I go in case of inspiration. I love the quality of the paper and the sturdiness of their construction, but if you are listening, Moleskine, please will you make the covers in a wider range of colours, to reduce confusion? There’s also a Mozart Requiem cd (my other main passion is singing choral music), the omnipresent coffee mug (which becomes a tea mug in the afternoons), my diary (I haven’t yet learned to trust the electronic version entirely), and a paperweight that was a present when I left my last job. It reminds me of the lovely people there, but not the office politics I was glad to leave behind.
Post-its are a must – they get stuck onto the whiteboard behind me on which I also write lists, plot-routes, character relationships and reminders about what to get at the supermarket. Also on there is an old ‘love you, Mum’ message from one of my daughters which I am loath to rub out. On the walls are photographs of my family and holiday snaps to remind me of white beaches and blue seas when things are grey and miserable here. I also stick up photos from magazines or from the internet to remind me of my characters – an ancient photo of my mum in her twenties is how I imagined Lily, the heroine of The Last Telegram.
Out of the window is a prolific pink-flowered fuschia bush and a glorious pale green leaved acacia tree. I often lose myself in its colours and the motion of its branches when I am looking for inspiration.
Before mobile phones, before texts, before email or Twitter, urgent news was transmitted by telegram. But today’s new technology has done for the telegram and, on 14th July 2013, the world’s last-ever public service telegram will wing its way down the wires, in India.
It will be a nostalgic day for some, including me: my debut novel is entitled The Last Telegram, and relies on this form of communication for some of its highest dramatic moments. It is set in the early years of the Second World War, when receiving a telegram was a sure signal of bad news. I cannot imagine anything worse than hearing, as my heroine Lily did, that a loved one is: ‘Missing, presumed dead.’ It meant that she would have to wait months before knowing, definitively, that all hope was lost. And that she was unlikely even to have the consolation of finding a body to mourn over.
More recently we’ve come to associate telegrams with happier events such as weddings and birthdays. I still treasure a telegram sent (from Majorca) by my parents to celebrate my university degree results, which reads: MUCHOS CONGRATULATIONS YOUR EXCELLENT RESULT STOP. I remember the thrill it gave me, so much more exciting than a letter, arriving so fast (within a few hours!) and in that iconic ticker-tape typeface.
The first telegram ever sent, by Samuel Morse more than 144 years ago, is said to have read: ‘What hath God wrought?’ To us it hardly seems that dramatic, but until the advent of the telegram the fastest way of sending a message was by train and/or ship, so it was a huge step change in the speed of communications at the time. What would he have made, I wonder, of the deluge of emails and texts most of us manage each day? As we open up our inboxes we might sigh, ‘What, indeed, hath our deities wrought?’
The shortest telegram in the English language was from the Irish writer Oscar Wilde, then living in Paris, who cabled his publisher in Britain to see how his new book was doing. The message read: ‘?’ The publisher cabled back: ‘!’ In 1897 another author, the American Mark Twain, heard that his obituary had been published erroneously and famously sent the message: ‘The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated’.
Telegrams have played significant roles in history. The first successful air flight, by the Wright brothers, was announced by telegram from North Carolina in 1903. ‘Successful four flights Thursday morning’. Nine years later, one early morning in 1912, the Titanic sent its last wireless message. ‘SOS SOS CQD CQD Titanic. We are sinking fast. Passengers are being put into boats’. America was spurred to join the First World War after the interception of the Zimmermann Telegram. Sent on 17th January1917 urging the Mexicans to join the war as Germany’s ally against the USA, it was intercepted by the US security services (shades of today’s rumpus about GCHQ here!) and President Wilson, who had previously wanted to stay out of the war, then used the telegram to gain support for American intervention.
John F. Kennedy used to joke during his 1960 presidential campaign that he had just received a telegram from his father. ‘Dear Jack: Don’t buy one more vote than necessary. I’ll be damned if I’ll pay for a landslide.’
I also love the telegram reportedly sent by the artist Marc Chagall after the beautiful stained glass windows (above) that he created for the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem were damaged in the 6-day war of 1967. In reply to a telegram from the Israeli military leader Moshe Dayan expressing his regret for the damage, Chagall wrote: ‘You fix the war, I’ll fix the windows.’
One day, emails and text messages will themselves be superseded by the latest technology, but they will never hold the same place in our history as the telegram. All records of today’s most important missives will be lost in cyberspace.
This photograph of my mother, aged 18, was beside me the whole time I was writing The Last Telegram, because she is the model – physically at least – for my heroine, Lily. If you have read the book, I hope you will recognise that determined jaw, that strong, dark eyed gaze, that optimistic half-smile. Lily is desperate to break away from her comfortable childhood in an English market town and the expectation – typical for the time – that she would marry, have children and become a perfect housewife.
She wants to make something more of her life but, when war is declared, she thinks all those opportunities are lost. Instead she discovers, as did so many British women, that as well as the fear and hardship, wartime created the very chance she needed, to prove herself an equal to men in the world of work.
My hero, Stefan, also has a strong basis in real life – although not physically. His story is based on a close friend of my parents who was rather like an uncle to me. All I knew at the time was that he had a very strong German accent. Roger, whose real name was Kurt, was one of five German Jewish ‘Kindertransport’ boys sponsored by my family to escape the persecution of the Nazis by coming to England and work at the mill. He fell in love with the girl at the local post office and although, like Stefan, he and his friends were interned as enemy aliens in Australia, he was determined to return to the UK. So, after fighting for the Allies in the jungles of Burma, he came back to work at the mill, married his sweetheart, had two lovely children and lived a long and happy life.
I truly hope you enjoy the book. It is intended as a tribute to those men and women who, like my mother and father, worked tirelessly and selflessly behind the scenes on the ‘home front’ and helped make our country safe for generations to come.
More about my next book, The Forgotten Seamstress, to come shortly.
Amazon, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece., Hungary, India, Ireland, Isle of Man, Italy, Jersey, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Russian Federation, sales figures, Singapore, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Thailand, Turkey, UK, United Arab Emirates, USA, website stats
One of the last things I predicted, on becoming a published author for the first time, was that I would become obsessed with sales figures and other random statistics. Now, of course, I have clocked on to the obvious truth that this is a trait common to most writers because a) sales = royalties and b) the better your sales, the greater your chances of being published next time.
Still, back then in the heady days of 2012 when The Last Telegram had just hit the streets, supermarkets, airports, bookstores and the great online world out there, I was astonished to discover that it was in the Amazon Kindle top 100, and had become one of their ‘movers and shakers’. I took to logging on several times a day just to watch it rise in the fiction charts and, even more encouragingly, in the ‘historical fiction’ chart where it reached the dizzy heights of the top ten.
But as with all things in life what goes up must come down, and after a month or two it slithered inexorably off the top 100 and into the unnumbered ‘others’. Now I have to rely on updates from my publisher to find out how the sales are going – which are pretty good, thanks to you wonderful readers out there. Of course I also click regularly onto the Amazon review site, and other book review sites, to see what people think. To date, 143 lovely people have kindly reviewed The Last Telegram, and I thank you all for taking the trouble and for your (mostly) four star ratings.
Meantime, my latest obsession is with the clicks on this website, and where they come from. So far, it has been visited by people in UK, USA, France, Germany, Australia, Canada, Ireland, Switzerland, Belgium, Sri Lanka, Italy, Poland, Kyrgyzstan, Denmark, Austria, Norway, India, Thailand, New Zealand, Netherlands, Russian Federation, Spain, Mexico, Isle of Man, South Africa, Jersey, Turkey, Singapore, United Arab Emirates, Portugal, Slovenia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Greece.
Now that’s a pretty impressive list for a novel that’s only (so far) been published in English (German edition out in July). But if I am to achieve my ambition of covering the world by the end of the year I still have a long way to go, especially in South America and Africa, in the Far and Middle East, the Baltic States and the far north (Sweden, Iceland, Greenland).
So if you know anyone who lives in these places, please drop them a line with my website address to encourage them to log on and say hello. You will make a stats-obsessed author very happy!
One of the unexpected joys of becoming a writer is meeting readers!
Real readers, clasping my book in their hands (readers of the e-book version also welcome, but they don’t give me quite the same buzz).
Over the past few months I’ve had the pleasure of talking to around 20 different book groups, large and small, about The Last Telegram. Most of them include some form of eating and drinking, too, and those meeting in restaurants are especially congenial, such as Caxton Books’ club at Frinton, where I was last night (great food served at Cafe 19), the Gourmet Book Club of Colchester and the Appetite Book Club, based at The Court House in Colchester.
I simply cannot think of a better way of spending an evening than enjoying good food and drink in the company of interested and interesting people, as readers tend to be, people with fascinating ideas and creative imaginations of their own, with a diverse range of life experiences and well-considered opinions.
People often apologise in advance, when asking a question: ‘I expect you’ve been asked this a dozen times before,’ they say. Actually, the variety and range of questions never ceases to surprise me and, although there are a few that occur more often than others, it is never a bore to answer them because in doing so, each time, I learn something different about myself and my own experience of writing.
Some questions require me to analyse more complex aspects of the creative process, which gets me thinking (always useful). And, just occasionally, I am stumped for answers. Like the reader at Cafe 19 last night who asked (as a joke, of course) what research I’d done for the lesbian sex scene which never made it into the final version of The Last Telegram! (Note to self, must think of a witty reply for next time I get asked that question.)
So, if you belong to a book club with more than 20 or so regular attendees and within half an hour’s drive of my home town of Colchester, and would like to have an ‘author’ speaker, do get in touch and I may be able to oblige. My email address is on the contacts page of this website.
Here I am signing books!