I don’t really go in for “New Year, New Me,” partly because I think it’s probably futile and also because there’s not a lot about myself I’d like to fundamentally change. I do have some plans for the year, and a couple of things I’d like to do more of, but no resolutions as such.
Relatedly: I’ve been thinking about this tweet. Read more
A few months ago, tired of people going “How do you fit it all in?!”, I started a blog series to answer that exact question. It was partly for other people but also partly for me; I wasn’t sure how I fitted it all in either. The answer used to be “I barely sleep” but these days I’m often in bed by 8pm, sometimes significantly earlier, so I knew it wasn’t that.
But apparently I still manage to live many lives and do loads of things. So how do I do it? This week marks week 21 of my ‘How Do You Fit It All In?’ series so I thought I’d go back through them and work out if there’s a direct answer to that question. Read more
People have always asked me how I manage to fit all the various things I do into my life. In the past, the answer was that I was a workaholic who could get by on four hours’ sleep a night.
Nowadays, however, I’m in my late twenties, and while that means I’m still young (right? RIGHT?!), it also means I’ve started making those little noises when I get out of chairs or bend to pick something up, and also that going to bed at a reasonable hour instead of stumbling drunkenly through the streets of Dalston at 3am seems like a perfectly good nighttime pursuit.
This week I’ve decided to experiment with doing the weekly round-up on a Friday. Doing it on Sundays never quite happens, because… well… Sunday. And Mondays feel wrong, somehow. So let’s see how this goes.
Considering that the last one was posted this Monday, this is more of a three-day roundup, but I’ve managed to fit quite a lot into those three days.
(Not to be confused with Room, which is also good.)
The other day I hopped on a bus and went to meet a friend for dinner. Unfortunately she texted at the last minute to say she couldn’t make it, but being a true introvert this didn’t particularly bother me.
This meant that I had both (a) spare time and (b) spare money, which I’d budgeted for dinner. What did I do? Naturally, I took myself along to Waterstones.
I spent an hour and a half browsing the shelves, telling myself I was only allowed two books (the price of books these days almost equals the price of dinner, but books > food, so it’s fine). I went through several, starting with Eco’s The Prague Cemetery and Joanne Harris’ The Lollipop Shoes, both of which I inexplicably still haven’t read.
I realised whilst wandering though that Eco and Harris are both authors whose books seem to drop into my life of their own accord from time to time, and therefore maybe I should buy something I wouldn’t normally read. Something from an author I hadn’t heard of, for example, I thought as I absent-mindedly turned all the copies of The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect to face forwards so that people would buy them (do it. They’re great.).
My eyes flicked over the shelves and alighted on Rooms. It had an intriguing cover, nice and dark, so I wandered over and read the blurb.
A compulsive and dazzling novel narrated by two ghosts that inhabit the walls of an old house. This isn’t your traditional ghost story, though. It’s about the living as much as the dead – and the secrets that haunt them both.
Hmm. Interesting. But it didn’t really give much away. It sounded good, though, or at least unusual; I often think that the ‘story told by someone who’s dead’ trope is a bit overdone, but this one seemed like it might be a bit different. And it was.
Wealthy Richard Walker has just died, leaving behind his country house full of rooms packed with the belongings of a lifetime. His estranged family – bitter ex-wife Caroline, troubled teenage son Trenton and unforgiving daughter Minna – have arrived for their inheritance.
But the Walkers are not alone. Prim Alice and the cynical Sandra, long dead former residents bound to the house, linger within its claustrophobic walls. Jostling for space, memory and supremacy, they observe the family, trading barbs and reminiscences about their past lives. Though their voices cannot be heard, Alice and Sandra speak through the house itself – in the hiss of the radiator, a creak in the stairs, the dimming of a light bulb.
I like any book that opens with a poem. This one opens with two: a good start.
There were lots of things I liked about it and I’m not quite sure where to begin. I suppose one of the main things was that it didn’t try to be more than it was. It could have gone down the flouncy-writing route (not necessarily a bad thing) and been all descriptive and haunting, but it didn’t. It remained as down-to-earth as a ghost story can be: telling the reader about the family who’d come to collect their inheritance, running through a fairly generic family-in-a-novel plot. Ex-wife who’s angry that ex-husband slept with other women, career-minded nymphomaniac daughter whose sexual escapades ruin her professional life, troubled teenage son who has no friends and wants to end it all. And of course, there’s Amy, the granddaughter, who watches everything that’s going on and applies to it her childish logic.
Then there were the ghosts. Again, these were nicely written because they were more like people than spirits; getting angry with each other, trying to keep secrets but also wanting to let them into the open. What I particularly liked, though, was the description of how being a ghost worked. They weren’t corporeal in any sense of the word, and some of the passages about how they drifted through the house, in some ways becoming it briefly before scattering again, were really well done. It’s how I’d imagine ghosts would actually be, if they existed.
On the whole, it’s a good solid novel that’s somehow more than the sum of its parts. I think because it’s sensitively written without being cloying, and Lauren Oliver spends just enough time on descriptions to make them interesting, but not so much time that you end up skipping pages of text (*ahem* Victor Hugo *ahem*).
Definitely recommended; dinner budget money well spent!
The other day I read & reviewed The Twilight Hour, which is in the running for my Book of the Year 2014. It’s a wonderful, touching story, and you can read my review of it here.
I was therefore very excited when I was asked whether I’d like to interview Gerrard for my blog. I sent over some questions and she responded quickly and with characteristically excellent writing.
Q&A – Nicci Gerrard
Your new book, The Twilight Hour, is published under the name ‘Nicci Gerrard’, but you also write as one half of the duo ‘Nicci French’. What’s it like writing by yourself? What are the main differences and challenges of writing as a duo, and as a solo author?
I’d like to start by saying that I feel terrifically lucky to be able to have two voices – to inhabit two rooms inside myself.
Writing can be lonely and also scary – and sometimes a bit like going mad (and I write in an attic). Writing with Sean is less lonely, less scary, though not perhaps less mad. In many ways the actual process itself is remarkably similar, because when we are writing our Nicci French novels, we never write together; that would be impossible and also very quarrelsome. We still have to be alone, letting ourselves sink down into the work, letting go of self-consciousness. It’s the bits around the actual writing that feels very different. There’s the planning, which Sean and I do together over weeks and months, over coffee and tea and then wine, on long walks – on my own, I don’t have the same sense of ideas being confirmed and added to. I have to trust myself – to know when something will work and when it won’t. Then the editing and re-writing, and of course the aftermath of – the publicity, the readings, talks and interviews. As Nicci French, we can hide behind each other and protect each other. As Nicci Gerrard, there is no-one to hide behind. This is me: my voice, my words, my responsibility, my mistakes, my fault….. I feel much more vulnerable as Nicci Gerrard.
But I have an entirely different voice when I write alone, and it’s a voice I need to use.
Your main character, Eleanor Lee, is presented as multifaceted and interesting, far more so than a lot of older characters in fiction. What was she inspired by, and how did you go about building her character?
Thank you – that means a lot because it’s what I set out to do from the start: bring an old, blind woman nearing her end to life in all her rich complications. And in fact there was a particular inspiration for the novel and to Eleanor. My parents are both alive but they are very old and very frail and vulnerable now. Two years ago, my siblings and I moved them from their family home into more practical house where they now have a 24-hour carer. My father was a doctor, and a private, courteous and kind man and he is now bed-bound and heartbreaking. My mother was (and still is) beautiful, and also boundlessly optimistic and adventurous; she is registered blind, has had cancer and several strokes, is very fragile. When we were packing their things away we found an old film of that we had converted to a disc that we all watched together at Christmas. It was of their wedding, over 60 years ago. There they were, so young, so hopeful, arm in arm and beaming at us. It was one of those moments which makes your skin tingle and your heart beat faster: very emotional and happy-sad.
We look at old people and often all we see is their age. But the old contain all the selves they’ve ever been. I wanted to create a character and give her her youth back as well, so that the reader sees the old Eleanor and the young at the same time. I wanted to have a woman who was still purposeful, caustic, passionate, guilty. I wanted the novel to swarm with old memories.
The novel touches on themes of loneliness and depression, but still manages to be an uplifting tale. Do you view yourself as an optimist in general?
I think I am – but perhaps a melancholy optimist, or even a self-willed optimist, if that makes sense. I don’t think everything will turn out for the best at all, and I’ve never believed that people get what they deserve and reap what they sow, but I do feel that even in the midst of sadness or loss, life can also be filled with great joy and kindness and you have to hold on to that. I think resilience is one of the most important qualities. Even when you’re lonely and depressed, you must put one foot in front of the other and move forward. And you should look at other people with compassion. There’s a wonderful quotation, attributed to Plato: ‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle’.
How did you manage to get the balance between writing about dark subjects and maintaining a note of positivity throughout the book?
Life is made up of small moments. The Twilight Hour is set in winter, in a desolate landscape; Eleanor is old and blind and near death and Peter is young and sad and lost. The novel is about guilt and betrayal and grief. But I allow them to help each other though these small moments. They drink tea together and wine together and she tells him a story. They give a shape to sadness. And they recognize each other. I think I believe in recognition much more than I believe in happiness – it’s why the kindness of strangers is so uplifiting. Also, they are both allowed to move forward. What’s depressing (and what characterizes real depression) is being stuck.
A bit of a classic question – tell us about some of your favourite books, or authors you find inspirational.
Where do I start! OK, with my childhood and all of the Moomintroll books by the great Tove Jansson. They are whimsical, mystical, lyrical and haunting little tales that I loved as a girl and read to my children over and over again (often through tears). I have also re-read Jane Eyre many times – the first time as a teenager, when I was completely captivated by the voice, apparently demure and yet so angry and assertive. It’s a great romance of course, and yet it’s also strange and wild and full of Gothic undercurrents. (I also love Wilkie Collins’ Gothic novels, particularly Woman in White and The Moonstone). Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway and her diaries I return to, always with a sense of wonder that someone can write so wonderfully about tiny moments and with such elegiac beauty about time passing. Anna Karenina. Willa Cather’s My Antonia. The poetry of W H Auden and Louis MacNeice (I learn them off by heart and recite them loudly when on my bike). I think I have to stop there – and I haven’t even got on to any living authors…..
How did you get started as an author?
I always wanted to write, ever since I was old enough to read, but I never quite got beyond 3,000 word features or interviews until I met Sean when I was thirty and working as literary editor for The New Statesman. My marriage had just ended, I had two tiny children (a two- and one-year-old), was worried about everything, especially money, didn’t have much faith in men – and I somehow fell in love with him. We used to read each other’s work and we talked a lot about books and writing – we used to have a conversation about the possibility of two people making one voice. We thought that one day (when the children were older, and very quickly there were four children not two, when we had more time, more space, more money, more everything) we would try to write book together, as an experiment. Then we both came upon the idea that was the inspiration for our first psychological thriller, The Memory Game, and thought: if not now, when? So that’s how I started – as a collaborator, under a name that didn’t belong to me. Perhaps I needed that element of disguise to give me the confidence.
What advice would you give someone who wants to write and publish their first novel?
To write a novel: I’d say read a lot, and then I’d say, when you have the story that you need to write, start immediately. There’s never a perfect time, there will always be a reason to put it off. And try to find your own voice, whatever that voice is. Writing is a strange mixture of faith and doubt. Be self-critical but don’t be discouraged by failure: a large part of writing is failing to write, erasing what you’ve written, beginning again….
To publish a novel: well, you probably have to find an agent, since very few publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts now. Send a covering letter, a synopsis and the first few chapters to a suitable agent (look at novels in the same territory as yours and find out which agent represents them). Be dogged. When and if they say no, try again. And again.
The Twilight Hour comes out on the 23rd of October and is published by Penguin. You can pick up a paperback for £7.99; more details available on Penguin’s website.
2014 is proving to be a really good year for books. This is exciting, because the past couple of years haven’t been so great (or maybe I just haven’t been buying the right books). Last year, of course, there was The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, which was my Book of the Year, but that was pretty much the only one that bowled me over. This year, along with The Rosie Effect (TRP’s sequel), there have been several novels competing for the “No, that one was my favourite” accolade.
The Twilight Hour by Nicci Gerrard is one of those. It is, in a word, beautiful.
To any passer-by, Eleanor Lee might be almost invisible – just another elderly lady – but beneath the surface lies a powerful secret she has kept hidden for decades…
At the dawn of the Second World War, Eleanor is a fiercely independent young woman, determined to write her own future, rejecting marriage for passion, security for adventure. But now, seventy years later, alone in her big old house, she is anxious to erase the past.
Peter Mistley, a young man escaping his own ghosts, is employed to help Eleanor sort though her lifetime of possessions. For amongst them are things that her children and grandchildren must never find. Together, Eleanor and Peter uncover traces of another life – words and photographs revealing a story of forbidden love, betrayal, guilt and self-sacrifice.
But by releasing her memories at last, can Eleanor still protect those who must never know the truth?
I can’t remember if I’ve ever read anything else by Nicci Gerard, but after reading this one I’m pretty sure I’m going to buy some others. It’s a lovely story, beautifully told, and does something I absolutely love: treats old people like they’re humans.
Some of my favourite people are (were, have been) in their 80s and 90s – filled with life and stories and tidbits of information that those of us who haven’t been around for so long aren’t yet privy to. But the elderly aren’t just story machines; they’re humans too, with wants and desires and needs just like the rest of us. A lot of books (and people) forget this, I think, and treat them like they’re either superhuman wise-old-ancients, or fun little pets.
The Twilight Hour doesn’t do that. Eleanor Lee is a complex character, down to earth and filled with the same stuff as her co-protagonist, Peter Mistley. Yes, she’s lived a lot already, but that doesn’t mean she’s not still living. Her story’s drawing to a close, but it’s still happening at the same time. And she is an active part of it, not a passive passenger.
It’s a novel about two people who are stumbling in the world, and who find each other. A story of what loneliness can do to a person, and how people can be lonely in different ways. How sometimes all we have to do is give another person a chance.
And it hits one of my other favourite points as well: it’s realistic. There are no wildly unlikely plot-saves, nothing particularly ground-breakingly unusual happens. I thought the ending was going to go a certain way, which in my mind would have been the perfect literary ending; but it didn’t. It went the realistic way, and that made me love it more.
It’s one of those books you’ll read in one sitting, curled up on the sofa with a mug of tea, and when you finish it and put it down, you’ll be very still for a few moments while the ghosts of the characters curl around your mind and take up their positions there. ‘Cause those guys won’t be leaving anytime soon.
The Twilight Hour will stick with you in the best possible way; remind you that people are people, we’re all struggling through the world in our own way; and might just make you a better person after you’ve read it.
Last night I finished work a bit earlier than usual and took myself on a theatre date to Brighton Dome. I hadn’t really looked at the description when I’d booked the ticket, so other than remembering the words ‘hip-hop’ and ‘martial arts’, I had no idea what to expect.
I got there to find a large number of children racing around the theatre, and noted the words ‘Ages 6 and up’ on the poster outside the door. This generally means one of two things: it’s more magical than expected, or it’s more patronising. The Five and the Prophecy of Prana was neither, but it was good, and really interestingly done.
I should admit at this point that I’m a total theatre snob. In general, I like physical theatre with a strong Artaudian influence, a good dollop of Stanislavsky, and very little Brecht. I’ve also been a choreography snob ever since I had to pirouette 39 times in a row in a performance of Joseph as a teenager. In other words: I’m a fan of ‘one must suffer for one’s art’.
In ancient times, an evil Emperor has used sorcery to harness the five elements – wood, fire, earth, metal and water. With the powers of the combined elements at his command he rules with an iron fist for decades, until a group of warriors known as the Guardians of Prana devise a way to defeat the Emperor and split his soul into five parts.
Successful in their plan, each Guardian vows to protect one of the five orbs containing an element of his soul. Every 60 years a new generation of Guardians of Prana is trained to ensure peace and harmony reign.
But eventually one of the Guardians becomes greedy for power. Soo Lin discovers that whoever restores the five elements to one will rule the world. She persuades fellow Guardian Choo Fang to join her and they murder their comrades Ying Pi and Lao Chen, claiming their orbs. Wang Tang realises he is too late to save Ying Pi and Lao Chen but battles Choo Fang and prevents his orb from falling into the hands of evil.
Wang Tang’s antics make him a local hero, until he is embroiled in a scandal which sees him shunned by the villagers. In his misery, he becomes a drunk vagrant, wallowing in sorrow.
In the present day, we meet The Five. Tuggy, Michelle, Maxine, Flinch and Stylouse are all appearing in court, where a judge is about to sentence them for their crimes. An old friend of Wang Tang persuades him to intervene. At first Wang Tang is reluctant, but seeing an inner glow within them he agrees to begin their training.
As time passes they learn discipline and improve their skills. Wang Tang assigns each of The Five with their spirit animal. They are humbled at their newfound skills and become respectful of their teacher. In spite of their progress, Wang Tang continues to drink.
The ultimate goal for the Five is to conquer Soo Lin and restore the elements, for which they will need to draw on all of their training.
I did have to Google that, though. From the performance itself, I understood that there were orbs that somehow gave power, that Soo Lin had them all, and that the Five wanted them back. Again, I think it would have benefitted from writing bits of the story onto the comic book screens. But then I’m quite a wordy person, so maybe that’s just me.
This was undoubtedly the most interesting part of the performance: just how everything blended together. The movement was street dance mixed with martial arts, which worked really well. There were a couple of scenes where the music was pounding, horrendously loud, the beat throbbing through the theatre so you could feel it in your chair, and the actors engaged in vicious battle that was part dance-battle, part outright war. These were wonderful scsenes and I wished there had been more of them.
The set was really interesting, too: three huge white screens hung across the back of the stage, and several white blocks that were brought out between scenes and arranged in different ways to create landscapes. Projected onto these was comic-book-style art, sometimes with appropriate dialogue (“Yaaa!”), sometimes just the art itself. It gave the impression of turning a page every time the stage went dark. A fascinating way of moving between scenes, and not one I’ve seen done before.
The dialogue was boomed on loudspeakers across the auditorium, and it was the one part of the show I really didn’t like. The actors overcompensated for the hugely loud vocals by throwing their arms around and moving their bodies a bit too much at times, making it look a bit more panto than dance theatre. But there wasn’t too much dialogue, so it was alright. In a couple of instances, the dialogue appeared instead as projections on the screens, alongside the comic-book-art, and this worked far better in my opinion. Though I can understand that if it’d been done like that all the way through, it would have felt like a subtitled performance, and perhaps that wasn’t what they were aiming for. One of the best pieces of acting in the show, I thought, was when one character died and another wept over his body, and you could hear the actual actor on the stage making ravaged noises. No amplification needed, beautifully acted. That’s my kind of theatre!
During the interval, the elderly lady who was sitting next to me leaned over and said “The kids love this, don’t they? Of course, it’s their kind of thing, technology and vicious dancing. ‘Manga’, I think they call it.” I smiled quietly to myself, but she had a point. It was very technology-influenced: like something you’d see when scrolling through Tumblr looking for anime pics. Not that I spend too much time on Tumblr, of course.
This was, on the whole, strong, but it took a while to get warmed up. The first half of the show didn’t feel very tight; some of the moves weren’t quite in time, some of the projections on the screen were slightly off when the actors were (presumably) supposed to be moving in time with them. Shortly before the interval, I’d decided I didn’t really like it. But then Frankie Johnson, who plays Stylouse, had an excellent scene which convinced me that I should definitely pay attention to the rest of the show.
After the interval, everyone seemed to be sufficiently warmed up and things became more tightly choreographed, which I liked. Lots of dance-fighting, and a couple of scenes carried excellently by the amazing Michele ‘Paleta’ Rhyner (Soo Lin), a double-jointed gymnast who moves like liquid across the stage.
On the whole, it was good. I wasn’t bowled over by it, but I think I was in a minority there. The audience gave thundering applause at the end, and as I left the theatre I could hear people around me raving about it. Like I said, I’m a theatre snob.
The children in the audience absolutely loved it, and some of them could be seen practising the moves during the interval. I’d say it’s a great family show, especially if your kids are into anime, manga, martial arts, hip hop, street dance, or just unusual theatre.
I’m not sure how I’d rate it – maybe a 5/10. I enjoyed parts of it immensely, but never got completely lost in the storyline; thought a few of the dance scenes were brilliant (Soo Lin), and a couple of bits of acting were amazing (Stylouse), but I’d have liked a bit less dialogue, a bit more storyline explanation, and a slightly tighter choreography in the first act.
I saw the final performance at Brighton Dome, but the show is now on tour around England & Wales; you can see some of their tour dates here.
We have lots of book-related treats this week! A while ago I wrote about Half Bad, a young adult novel by Sally Green which was refreshingly interesting and had some great characters. The good news is that there’s now a sequel! It’s coming out in 2015 and we have a sneak preview of the first chapter below. Enjoy!
If you can’t wait until 2015 to read the rest, there’s a short story coming out soon, Half Lies, which is an ebook prequel to Half Bad.
And as if that weren’t enough exciting news, the first ever YA Book Prize has recently been announced. Watch this space for more news!