About writing

Bookmark, marking a moment for Fair of Face

Window on the world of Bookmark

Last Monday dawned squally.  As I drove to Spalding for the first signing session of Fair of Face, the leaves were being snatched from the trees, victims of whatever the latest Atlantic storm was called (I’ve lost track!).  As I approached Spalding, the rain arrived. (Lovers of pathetic fallacy, take note!)  However, once inside Bookmark, I was safe, as I knew I would be, enveloped by its usual high standard of hospitality, warmth and the provision of many interesting people to talk to.

Last year, when Rooted in Dishonour was launched – the staff at Bookmark have, magnificently, given me events for all my novels – the café was closed for refurbishment.  This year, I was delighted to find it open, with an enticing range of treats to choose from.  My husband, never behind the door when it comes to food, indulged in a farmer’s breakfast and, a few hours later, a massive slice of coffee and walnut cake. I confined myself to a cheese and tomato toastie (not as modest as it sounds: Spalding helpings are generous!).

I was there until 3 p.m., signing copies of Fair of Face.  Several old friends, readers I have met since In the Family was published in 2012, came in to see me.  I met new readers, too, some of whom wanted to buy all the DI Yates titles, starting with the first – though I made it clear to them, as I do to all new readers, that each novel is a standalone. As I’ve said before, I think it’s cheating to expect readers to have to read all the previous titles in order to make sense of the latest one.

On Tuesday, a radio programme followed the Bookmark signing session: Carla Green interviewed me on Radio Lincolnshire at lunchtime, asking some particularly searching questions about Fair of Face, and generously promoted the events at Spalding and Stamford (see below).

I was back in Bookmark on Thursday evening to give a talk and two readings to members of Bookmark’s reading group and some of its other customers, too.  An author’s dream audience, they were extremely lively and engaged and, if any of them is reading this post: Thank you very much indeed for a magnificent evening – you were brilliant in your response!  And huge thanks to Sam Buckley, Sarah Halgarth and all the rest of the staff at Bookmark for welcoming me again and working so hard to make great successes of both occasions there.

This coming week the wonderful Chris Hamilton-Emery, founder of Salt Publishing and the equally wonderful Emma Dowson, Salt’s PR Manager, have organised a blog tour for Fair of Face. Here’s the tour and I hope to ‘meet’ some of you there.  I’d like to thank all the bloggers who have so generously contributed their time and their oxygen to this.

There are several other events in the pipeline:

  • 4th November.  Signing session. Walkers Bookshop, Stamford.
  • 18th November.  Readings and workshop {‘Fair of Face but dark at heart’), Wakefield One.
  • Date tbc, February 2018.  Readings and workshop, Lincoln City Library.
  • 17th February 2018.  Readings and workshop, Spalding Library.
  • Dates tbc: Readings and workshop, University of Winchester

Review in Lincolnshire Life

There will be other events and reviews, too, which I’ll announce here when I have more details.  If anyone reading this is organising an event to which I could contribute, I should be very happy to hear from you.

Last but certainly not least, if you have bought Fair of Face, I should like to offer you my sincerest thanks: authors are not authors without readers and I want you to know that I feel greatly honoured knowing you have spent several hours of your precious time reading my book. I do hope that you enjoy it.

Murder comes to Pontefract again, baa gum.

The Pontefract Fleece Force

The Pontefract Fleece Force

Saturday November 5th was a cold, squally day, a fitting atmosphere for Bonfire Night. I was probably feeling the cold more than most, having just returned from some time away on business, first in Quito and then in Charleston, South Carolina (more about both on these pages very soon). The temperature in each of these places was around twenty-five degrees.

I was in Pontefract, a historic Yorkshire town, scene of gruesome murders during the Wars of the Roses and, almost two centuries later, in the English Civil War. Pontefract library is a light and airy building with lots of glass and invitingly-arranged bookshelves that fan out from the centre as well as lining the walls. I’d been very kindly invited by Alison Cassels, the Officer for Reading at Wakefield Library Services, with whom I have several times participated in crime fiction events in West Yorkshire; she had asked me to speak about Rooted in Dishonour, which will be published on 15th November, read one of the chapters and then host a more general literary event, which included asking the audience to name their favourite novels and take part in a short ‘whodunnit’ play written by Ann Cleeves.

It was a long time since I’d last visited Pontefract Library and I enjoyed going back. A small flock of helmeted sheep occupied the ‘Fleece Station’ and busied itself with a murder scene just outside. The corpse had been already removed, having first been outlined by Eweno Hugh, the soco. I noted the chalked heels and deduced that the victim had been female. I heard that DI Tup, who had been protecting some productive grass from persecution by local thieves, would soon be on the case. I felt quite at home. Furthermore, as the Ann Cleeves playlet was set in Shetland, refreshments included shortbread and Tunnock’s teacakes, a treat that I’ve rarely seen since I worked in Scotland some twenty years ago.

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The audience consisted of about twenty-five people, a few of whom I’d already met at events in Wakefield in previous years.  They were truly one of the liveliest, most receptive audiences I’ve ever encountered.  They gave Rooted in Dishonour a wonderful debut and asked so many questions that the event lasted two hours, instead of the hour that had been scheduled. If anyone who came on Saturday is reading this, I’d like to thank you very much indeed.

Huge thanks also to Alison, Lynne, Liz and Lynne and their colleagues, who made me feel as welcome and special as they always do.

Rooted in Dishonour’s launch event will take place at Bookmark in Spalding on Tuesday 15th November, the publication date; I’ll be signing books in the afternoon and talking about the novel and giving readings in the evening.  More details may be found at http://bookmarkspalding.co.uk/.  On Saturday 19th November, I’m signing copies of the novel from 11 am – 2 pm at Walker’s Bookshop in Stamford (http://www.walkersbookshops.co.uk/) and on Saturday 26th November, starting at 12.30 pm,  I have a signing session at Heffer’s Bookshop in Cambridge (http://bookshop.blackwell.co.uk/stores/heffers), as part of the Cambridge Literary Festival.

With Alison Cassels

With Alison Cassels

I’m also hoping to be able to spend rather more time blogging and catching up with many good friends on the social networks; they have been very, very kind to me on Twitter and Facebook whilst I have been caught up in work. Many sincere thanks to them all.

What really happened?

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I’ve finished reading John Le Carré: the biography, by Adam Sisman, a hugely enjoyable tour de force which has been justly praised by everyone who’s reviewed it. My only reservation is that it’s ‘official’, meaning that Le Carré co-operated with Sisman throughout – a huge advantage, but tempered by the fact that Sisman is therefore not always able to explore certain aspects of Le Carré’s life fully. For example, I’d like to know more about his relationships with women (the book goes into detail about his first wife only, now deceased); more about what other people – siblings, children, friends, publishers – thought or think about him; and, of course, more about his life as a spy. Sisman himself is not entirely convinced by Le Carré’s stated reasons for his reticence about the last of these.
However, Sisman makes it clear in his introduction that, although he and Le Carré enjoyed a mutually respectful professional relationship while the research for the biography was in progress, he didn’t allow himself to be tucked into Le Carré’s pocket. His version of what took place during certain key events in the author’s life (based on painstaking assembly of the facts) often differs markedly from Le Carré’s. This is fascinating, because usually these are also events that have been fictionalised to create important scenes in the novels. Sisman suggests that, over time, Le Carré has conflated his recollection of the actual event with the fictionalised account – which is even more likely in the many instances when he’s created different versions of the same event in several different novels.
This made me think about the constant overlap, and inevitable tension, between fact and fiction. We do always want to know ‘what really happened’: it’s a fundamental trait, part of the curiosity that makes humans the most adventurous and experimental of all primates. But can we ever achieve this knowledge? Does it even exist? It’s the continuing quest of the historian, his or her holy grail, and one that’s bound, however meticulous the research, to result ultimately in failure. The many versions of the Battle of the Somme that have been published this year offer a vivid example.
As a crime writer, I’ve often been intrigued by the different versions of the truth that are presented in courts of law. For example, based on exactly the same set of evidence, Oscar Pistorius was convicted of ‘culpable manslaughter’ by one judge and homicide by another. O.J. Simpson made a histrionic display of not being able to fit on to his hand a bloodstained leather glove left at the scene of his wife’s murder. It was pure courtroom theatre, but enough to introduce ‘reasonable doubt’ into the minds of the jury at his criminal trial, so they found him not guilty; however, he lost a civil court case in which he was accused of the same crime.
Even trickier than facts that rely on interpretation are ‘facts’ that may or may not be the result of distorted memory or belief. Recently, I’ve read several accounts of the Jeremy Bamber murders that took place thirty years ago. Bamber, who is one of a handful of convicted murderers serving a whole-life tariff and who has been told that for him life imprisonment literally means staying in prison until he dies, was accused and found guilty of murdering his adoptive parents and sister and her two twin sons in order to inherit the family wealth. Bamber has always protested his innocence; he’s set up a website that gives his version of events and has quite a large number of supporters who believe him. Having studied these accounts, written from all possible points of view, my own conclusion is that it’s the balance of probability that Bamber did commit the murders. What’s less clear is whether he himself knows this, or whether he either killed his relatives while experiencing a ‘fugue’ and has no recollection of their murders, or perhaps has been proclaiming his innocence for so long that he now believes it himself. This may sound far-fetched, but there is something very odd about his case.
Points of view are slippery things. As a child, I looked up to my paternal grandmother, a petite and elegant lady who kept house for my great-uncle, the youngest of her four brothers. Unlike my other grandmother, she was very up-to-date and well-informed, not just about current affairs, but about the fashions and music of the sixties that interested me. She went out to work, she dressed in smart clothes and she was always ready with good advice, but only when asked. I thought she was just about the perfect role model. However, I noticed that her brothers often spoke to her quite condescendingly. There seemed never to have been any question that she would take the entire responsibility of caring for, first of all, her elderly mother and then her youngest brother, who was physically disabled. At the time, I thought this was just another example of the male chauvinism that was rife in my family, but much later I discovered that she’d been ‘a bit of a goer’ in her youth. They’d given her ‘respectability’, but it seems the debt was not one that could ever be repaid. Their view of her was totally at variance with my own. Similarly, when my parents’ marriage disintegrated, I thought I understood chapter and verse exactly why, having been the reluctant occupier of a ringside seat, but over the many years that have since passed I’ve come to realise that I saw those events entirely from my mother’s point of view: I had and still have no idea what my father thought or suffered.
What did really happen? It’s a constant but almost always unanswerable question. In my latest novel, Rooted in Dishonour, mistaken points of view cost dear. The most skilful novelists are those who can assemble a kaleidoscope of viewpoints and still keep the reader onside, still maintaining that ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ that is the essential ingredient of all successful fiction. A few, like Le Carré, have the rare capability of achieving this while shifting the reader’s perception of the characters over time: thus, if you read all of the Smiley novels in sequence, you begin by thinking that Karla is the devil incarnate and end by realising that he is ‘just’ a man, with all the depth as well as the imperfections that entails. And it begs the question, what really happened? If we didn’t have to ponder that, there’d be no reason for reading any novel and, therefore, no reason for writing it.

Participation? Always, at Wakefield One!

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Monday was a horrible day in West Yorkshire. Torrential rain and high winds were battering the city when I arrived at Wakefield One for my afternoon of reading and discussion with some of the lovely members of the reading groups run by Alison Cassels. My husband dropped me off opposite the library complex and I got soaked – and nearly blown away – just crossing the road.

Nevertheless, I felt both philosophical and optimistic. As I’ve already noted, every event for The Crossing so far has taken place when the weather outside has been appalling, and every one has been a success. I knew that the gallant and stalwart members of the Wakefield reading groups would not let me down by preferring their firesides to the library.

Alison, as impeccable in the welcome as in the organisation!

Alison, as impeccable in the welcome as in the organisation!

Reader, I was not wrong! An extremely lively audience arrived punctually, some having regaled themselves with hot soup in the café to start with, and we all enjoyed a couple of hours of reading, writing and sleuthing, handsomely fortified by the Christmas cake, mince pies and stollen and tea and coffee supplied as generously and thoughtfully as usual by Alison and Lynn.

Lynn, quietly making it all happen (and she tweets!)

Lynn, quietly making it all happen (and she tweets!)

After listening to and providing feedback on the readings as only Wakefield audiences know how to do, when invited to take inspiration from the first chapter of The Crossing, each of the group members wrote a short sketch of an event that had happened to them and had stayed with them vividly, one that might be used as the opening scene of a novel. I hope the photographs capture the lively and committed participation that has come to be the hallmark of Wakefield One events: some read their own sketches, others asked their immediate neighbour to read for them. Everyone was spellbound by what was on offer. The accounts were fascinating and included bell-ringing for the first time and soaring unintentionally upwards on the rope, riding to London on The Flying Scotsman, walking to school through the snow in the Arctic winter of 1947 and the tale of how an uncle had pawned his wife’s hard-saved-for furniture to buy a red sports car. Novels in the making, every one – and the quality of the writing was of a very high standard.

The afternoon was rounded off by a quiz prepared by Alison. She’d found the photographs of twenty famous crime writers and asked the group to put names to them while I signed some books. It was a brilliant idea, and quite a hard task: no-one got more than half of the answers correct. (I’m going to ask Alison if she’ll let me have the quiz to post on this blog, as I’m sure some of my readers will enjoy it, too!).

The time slid away very rapidly. Braced by a final cup of tea, we ventured out into the cold again before we were trapped by the notorious end-of-day Wakefield traffic bottlenecks. I’d like to thank everyone who took part: the reading group members for giving me so much support (as they always do; it was also good to see several new faces this time), Alison and Lynn for arranging it all so impeccably, the Wakefield Libraries tweeter who, together with them, ensured that the event gained plenty of publicity, and Richard Knowles of Rickaro Books for supplying copies of The Crossing for sale. I hope to see you all again soon!

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In its launch week, a wonderful review of ‘The Crossing’!

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“… when we’re pretty sure we have the whole picture and are reflecting on the roller coaster nail biter of a journey as the end approaches, the author punches us in the stomach. Once again we’re treated to a big last minute shock in the same way she shook us in Sausage Hall.”

May I express here my sincere thanks to @TheBookbag’s Ani Johnson. The review may be found in full here.

Ani Johnson

Ani Johnson

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Forget the storm – the welcome in Bookmark is beautifully warm!

A warm welcome from Christine Hanson, owner of Bookmark

A warm welcome from Christine Hanson, owner of Bookmark

The Crossing seems fated to attract stormy weather! Recently, I described travelling through squalls and heavy rain to reach the pre-launch event at Harlow Carr. Yesterday, the day of the launch proper, a dual event organised by Bookmark in Spalding (Christine and Sam were wonderful as always!) dawned bright and clear, but by the time I’d arrived in Spalding it was starting to rain. The showers rapidly exploded into a torrential downpour which deterred all but the most stalwart shoppers, even though it was market day. By the evening, the rain had slackened but been replaced by gale force winds.

The day-time signing session had been as successful as possible under the circumstances. I enjoyed talking to some interesting people and was fascinated by what they had to say, but I was very nervous about the evening event. Though I knew the shop had sold a lot of tickets, I doubted that many members of my audience would want to venture out. Some, I knew, would have to travel quite a distance to get there.
Inexcusably, considering my antecedents, I had reckoned without the influence of true Lincolnshire grit! Everyone who had bought a ticket showed up, and there were a few on-spec visitors as well. No-one even bothered to mention the weather. The audience was among the best I have ever had: lively, engaged, perceptive and eloquent. Several of them had already bought The Crossing, even though it was first displayed in the shop only on Monday, and many more bought it at the event (and some of my other books, as well). I was impressed by the stamina shown by Peter, a member of Bookmark’s flourishing book club, who had sat down to read The Crossing solidly all day, finally finishing it a couple of hours before the event, so that he could talk about it.

Peter, having read The Crossing in a day!

Peter, having read The Crossing in a day!

I was both delighted and grateful to learn that the book club has chosen The Crossing as its next title, apparently the second time it has opted for a DI Yates novel.

A couple of readings

A couple of readings

I told them a bit about how I’d come to write the book, especially the real-life event on which the opening chapter is based.

Background to the story of the first chapter

Background to the story of the first chapter

I think I’ve already mentioned it on this blog, but, for new visitors, here are a few details: When my great aunt was the crossing-keeper at a remote hamlet called Sutterton Dowdyke, there was a terrible railway accident. The Peterborough to Skegness train, in heavy fog, ploughed into a lorry standing on the crossing, derailing some of the carriages, which crashed into my great aunt’s tied lodge-house and turned it round on its foundations. She was physically unhurt, but her mind was affected for the rest of her life. In the novel, the accident is the catalyst for the whole chain of events that follows. A strong theme throughout is imprisonment and how a person’s character is affected when completely subjugated to someone else’s will: what integrity compromises must such a prisoner be obliged to make in order to survive?
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The Bookmark audience and I talked about this. We also discussed memory, place, old Spalding, what sort of research I carry out when writing the books, books in prisons, other books we like to read and the relationship between fact, memory and fiction. We concluded by discussing significant events in their lives that perhaps they’d like to write about.
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One very enjoyable moment stands out: a question from the floor to put the speaker on the spot! “What do you like to read?” Now I simply can’t resist buying books when I find myself in a bookshop and, since I had my purchases from Bookmark tucked under the table, I enjoyed sharing my tastes with a group of very like-minded people – interaction doesn’t get much better than that. Bookmark 8

I’d like to say how grateful I am to everyone who came yesterday evening, both for braving the elements and for all your wonderful contributions to the conversation. And heartfelt thanks, of course, to Christine and Sam.
I shall be popping in to Bookmark briefly again to sign a few more books on 17th December, if any of my readers is interested. If so, I look forward to meeting you then.
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Stimulus for a story…

The Crossing

In South Lincolnshire on the afternoon of 28th January 1970, the countryside was enveloped in thick, freezing fog. It made the roads treacherous and there were protracted delays on the trains. Driving in country lanes was especially hazardous. Although some level crossings had already been fitted with so-called ‘continental barriers’, with relatively sophisticated warning systems, most were still simple five-barred gates operated manually. The practice in country districts where there wasn’t much traffic was to leave the gates closed against the road. Vehicles wishing to cross had to summon the crossing-keeper, who usually resided in an adjacent lodge-house tied to the job. Such an arrangement existed at Sutterton Dowdyke, a tiny hamlet a few miles south of Boston and east of the A16.

On 28th January, the regular Peterborough to Skegness train was considerably delayed by the fog. The driver of a tanker lorry owned by the council who regularly travelled on Dowdyke Road rang the bell to summon the crossing keeper to open the gates. The driver and his mate had been sent to empty a cesspit in the area and, task completed, were now returning to their depot. The crossing keeper, a woman in late middle age, came out and chatted with them briefly before opening the gates. The driver eased the lorry onto the crossing (most crossings at the time were notoriously bumpy) and was sitting right in the middle of it when the train came thundering through the fog, which had muffled the noise it was making until this moment, and flung the lorry into the air. The train was derailed. It ploughed into the lodge-house and turned the building one hundred and eighty degrees on its foundations. The lorry driver’s mate was killed instantly; the lorry driver himself was taken to hospital, critically injured.

Miraculously, the crossing-keeper was not hurt, but collapsed at the scene and was also taken to hospital, badly shocked.

My family and I first learned of the accident when watching the nine o’clock news that evening. The site of the accident wasn’t named, but my father recognised the lodge-house. We drove there immediately and then on to the Pilgrim Hospital to visit the crossing keeper. She was my father’s aunt and my own great-aunt.

My memories of that night sowed the first seeds of the plot of The Crossing, the fourth DI Yates novel, which I have just completed.

Into the lists…

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The magazine that accompanied Saturday’s edition of The Times was full of lists.  Each of the regular journalists contributed an article based on them, presumably to show solidarity with a population that is currently either toiling away at compiling Christmas lists or trudging through the streets to fulfil them as December sets in and we realise – indeed are perpetually being reminded by the media – that there are only x shopping days left.  To be honest, the result is a bit contrived, though some of the lists – especially Caitlin Moran’s – are great fun.  That said, I’ve long had a fascination with lists myself.  Consciously, it dates back to my student days, when I remember that my tutor drew attention to James Joyce’s magnificent series of lists in Ulysses.  “They may look effortless or random,” he told us, in his mildly admonishing way, “but just try writing lists to equal them yourself.  You’ll find out then that only a genius can produce lists like Joyce’s.”

Whatever the truth of this, some of Joyce’s lists are indeed difficult to surpass. One of my favourites is the list that begins as a pastiche of a passage from the King James Bible and reaches its climax with the following description of Leopold Bloom, fleeing through the streets of Dublin from a hostile reception:

“And they beheld Him even Him, ben Bloom Elijah, amid clouds of angels ascend to the glory of the brightness at an angle of fortyfive degrees over Donohoe’s in Little Green Street like a shot off a shovel.”

Lists were a part of my life long before I read that, of course.  I belonged to a generation whose mothers sent us up to the corner shop at a very tender age, a note tucked into a purse that also contained exactly the right money to pay for the items listed.  And, as well as shopping lists and Christmas lists, there were birthday lists, lists of people you wanted to come to your party (always more than you were allowed to invite), lists of books you wanted from the library and, on a more mundane note, the elaborate lists of ‘essential’ clothes and equipment that were part of the rite of passage of first attending a grammar school.  Later, as my friends and I married, there were wedding lists – a phenomenon to which I’ve never been able to reconcile myself.  The French go in for them in an even bigger way than we do: the poshest linen and china shops in France all carry ‘listes de mariages’ signs in the windows.  But I’ve always thought that wedding lists are too specific, and therefore slightly off-colour, not to say mercenary.  For example, it may be fine to tell your future wedding guests that you would like tea-cups, but it surprises me that accepted etiquette also allows you to specify ‘Wedgwood Daisy Tea Story’, or some such.  It’s like smiling at someone while you’re simultaneously twisting her arm halfway up her back: ‘You will buy me this china, each set of six cups and saucers costing an eye-watering £240, because I have invited you to my wedding.’

Nevertheless, lists, both your own and other people’s, are mesmerising, and since I’m sure The Times has not devoted a whole magazine to them on a whim, I’m clearly not alone in thinking so.  I’m not sure why this should be.  Perhaps it’s because a list combines comprehensiveness with brevity.  An eclectic list also allows the reader a tantalising, if puzzling, glimpse of its author’s mind:

“The time has come,” the Walrus said, “To talk of many things: Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax– Of cabbages–and kings– And why the sea is boiling hot– And whether pigs have wings.”

Lists can be sinister as well as humorous; they can help you to cope with everyday irritations; they can soothe by striking a common chord with the rest of humanity:

“I’ve got a little list–I’ve got a little list

Of society offenders who might well be underground,

And who never would be missed–who never would be missed!

There’s the pestilential nuisances who write for autographs–

All people who have flabby hands and irritating laughs–

All children who are up in dates, and floor you with ’em flat–

All persons who in shaking hands, shake hands with you like _that_–

And all third persons who on spoiling tête-a-têtes insist–

They’d none of ’em be missed–they’d none of ’em be missed!”

And despite what my tutor averred, I think that compiling a list is an excellent way of achieving literary distinction without having to try too hard.  It allows its author to give free rein to his or her imagination without having to take on the full responsibility of plot, characterisation or format.   In order to create a list all you need to do is, as the saying goes, empty your head on to the paper.  Though, with even half an eye on prosperity, you’re likely to want to tweak your list a little before you show it to anyone else.

I’m going to indulge myself by concluding with a bit of a digression.  It’s about the word ‘list’ itself.  It’s one of those words that has multiple meanings.  Thus boats list when they’re sinking.  Knights jousted in the lists.  And ‘list’ was an archaic word for ‘please’.  I love words like this!  And since today’s has been a post full of quotations, I’ve chosen a suitably gnomic one that uses a different meaning for list, to conclude:

“Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. Nicodemus answered and said unto him, ‘How can these things be?’”.

Happy Christmas shopping!  Don’t forget your list – you might not survive Christmas without it!  😉

From Wakefield to Covent Garden, ‘Sausage Hall’ has found great friends!

Launching 'Sausage Hall' at Wakefield

Launching ‘Sausage Hall’ at Wakefield

This is the final post on my launch week activities for Sausage Hall.  I’m covering the last two events: Tea at Sausage Hall, an imaginative tea-party given last Wednesday by Alison Cassels, Lynne Holroyd, Claire Pickering and their colleagues at the Wakefield Library at Wakefield One, which regular readers of this blog will know has provided me with granite-strength support ever since In the Family was published two years ago,

Tea at Sausage Hall (And yes, there was cake!)

Tea at Sausage Hall (And yes, there was cake!)

and an evening of conversation and readings at the Covent Garden branch of Waterstones, rounding off the celebrations with a London launch on Thursday.

Ever resourceful, Alison and her team provided sausage rolls, cake (Yes, there was cake!) and biscuits for the tea party.  (Her e-mail to me when organising the event reads ‘Can you put chocolate cake in the title of your next book?’)

Lynne Holroyd, the liveliest purveyor of refreshments I've ever known!

Lynne Holroyd, the liveliest purveyor of refreshments I’ve ever known!

A warm welcome, as always, from Alison Cassels

A warm welcome, as always, from Alison Cassels

As always, she promoted the occasion superlatively well and attracted a lively and engaging audience, amongst whom were old friends (such as Marjorie and Pauline – both also fab visitors to my blog) from the library’s book club, as well as many interesting new faces.

There’s obviously a lively and diverse events programme at Wakefield One: under the table bearing the tea-cups was a box containing a plastic skeleton (I was rather disappointed that someone arrived to remove it, as a suitable visual aid never goes amiss), while high on one of the shelves was a stuffed green parrot in a glass case.  (My husband dared me to say ‘Norwegian Green?  Is it nailed to its perch?’, but, though tempted, I’m afraid I failed to rise to the occasion, having on my mind things other than late parrots gone to meet their maker.)

Wakefield One audiences are truly wonderful.
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They are united in their love of books and reading, and not afraid to tell it how it is.  I’m delighted that they like my novels, because they would certainly tell me if they didn’t – during the course of the afternoon, they told me exactly what they thought of the work of a writer who is much better known than I am!  As well as being extremely perspicacious, they’re fun and they like to have fun.
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They know what they want and they want more of it: I’ve already promised to return to talk to them about DI Yates numbers 4 and 5.  It was my first Wakefield audience that told me how much they enjoyed reading about Juliet Armstrong and that they’d like to see more of her.  I hope that they’ll think I’ve done so in Sausage Hall, where Juliet’s story takes a new turn.

Several of the Wakefield readers had already bought Sausage Hall and came armed with it for me to sign.  Others bought it during the tea-party; as at my other Wakefield events, the books were kindly supplied by Rickaro Books in Horbury.  A man in the audience asked for an interesting, and very relevant, inscription (see caption): apparently, these are the nicknames of his brother and sister-in-law!
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To Pig and Sausage, with love!

To Pig and Sausage, with love!

The event at Waterstones Covent Garden was masterminded by Jen Shenton, the bookshop’s lovely ‘can-do’ manager.

Waterstones Covent Garden Manager Jen Shenton welcomes me to her beautiful bookshop

Waterstones Covent Garden Manager Jen Shenton welcomes me to her beautiful bookshop

I hadn’t met her before, but as soon as I saw her I knew what a distinguished bookseller she is.  It’s something you can’t fake: I honestly believe that the best booksellers  are born, not made, though that’s not to say they don’t work hard all the time in order to stay ahead.  I didn’t leave Jen’s shop until almost 9 p.m., and she was still there behind the till, helping customers, smiling and looking as fresh as a daisy, even though she must have been feeling exhausted.
Waterstones 1
This event also had a wonderful audience.
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Waterstones 7Waterstones 3
Waterstones 9
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Many of my friends from the book industry came (which meant they bowled me a few googlies when it came to the questions).  It was a light-hearted, laughter-filled evening, well lubricated with Waterstones wine and sustained by Adams & Harlow sausage rolls.  I was delighted that Tabitha Pelly, who has worked with Salt on PR for Sausage Hall, was able to come.  Like Jen Shenton, she seems never to tire or have a negative thought in her head.

I left the shop laden with some book purchases of my own and headed for King’s Cross station to catch the last train.  It was the perfect end to an extraordinary week.  My only sadness was that Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery, my publishers at Salt, were unable to come.  But I know that they’ve been keen followers of my progress as I’ve sprung Sausage Hall upon the world and I look forward to catching up with them next week.  Today is Chris’s birthday: I’d like to take the opportunity to wish him many happy returns!
Sausages and 'Sausage Hall'
Grateful thanks, once again, to Adams and Harlow for their wonderful sponsorship of the launch of Sausage Hall.

One writer looking back… lots of writers looking forwards!

Spalding High School

Spalding High School

At first light yesterday, I travelled to Spalding High School, my own former school, to which I had returned only once previously since leaving the sixth form.  I received a wonderful welcome from Adrian Isted, the newly-appointed Head of English, who began the day’s activities by showing me round the school.

With Adrian Isted, Head of English

With Adrian Isted, Head of English


First stop was the office of the headteacher, Mrs. Michele Anderson, who is also fairly new to the school.  She was fascinated to hear a little more from me about Mrs. Jeanne Driver, the first married headteacher at the school, who was its leader throughout my school career.  Born Jeanne Ouseley, she lived at 10, High Street, a large house of several storeys situated near the River Welland in Spalding.  Part of this house was divided into flats and there were usually several other teachers living there, as well as two of my fellow sixth formers, Cheryl Ouseley and Elizabeth Davies, both of whom were her nieces.  They called her ‘Auntie Jeanne’, a name that the rest of the sixth form also used affectionately, if unofficially.  Mrs. Driver was one of several strong women who influenced me as a girl.  She had a strong sense of duty and an even stronger work ethic.  We found some of the things she said highly amusing (for example, ‘I stand up whenever I hear the national anthem, even if I’m in the bath.’).  Sometimes she took the notion of duty to an extreme.  I remember she told us that when her husband, who had been in ill health for some time, finally died, she finished marking a set of books before setting in train the preparations for his funeral.  But her influence has lasted all my life.

The school has been added to, but otherwise is little changed.  I suppose the thing that struck me most yesterday is how it seems to have shrunk.  The corridors seemed longer, the stairways steeper, the ceilings higher when I first attended it as an eleven-year-old, then for only a part of the school week – pupils belonging to the first two school years still spent most of their time at the old school building in London Road, the first home of Spalding High School when it was established in 1920 on the site of its predecessor, the privately-owned ‘Welland Academy for Young Ladies’.   (The present school building was completed in 1959, but the London Road property continued to be used by younger pupils for more than twenty years afterwards.)  The assembly hall still boasts its luxurious but absurdly impractical parquet floor. 
The hall, unchanged
In my day it doubled up as a gym (there is now a separate sports hall) and we were obliged to do PE barefoot, which we all hated, so that the floor wouldn’t become scuffed by gym shoes.  The same grand piano stands in the corner, to the left of the stage.  In the corridor outside the headteacher’s office are several group photographs taken of all the teachers and pupils at intervals during the school’s history.  After some searching, I was able to discover myself on one of these – and I could also name all the other girls in my form and most of the teachers.

Guess which is the young Christina James!

Guess which is the young Christina James!

After the tour, I was interviewed by Eleanor Toal and Holly Hetherington for High Quarterly, the school’s completely online magazine (which is streets ahead of the drab, dark-red-covered printed production of my youth).  Eleanor, the e-zine’s editor, also writes articles for the Spalding Guardian, carrying on the long-standing relationship between the school and the local newspaper.  Eleanor and Holly (who edits Gardening and Food in the mag) knew they were going to be asked to interview me only very shortly before we met, because the intended interviewer was ill, but I wouldn’t have known if they hadn’t told me.  I was much struck by the sensitivity and perspicacity of their questions and enjoyed answering them.

Holly, left, and Eleanor interview me for High Quarterly

Holly, left, and Eleanor interview me for High Quarterly

After lunch, I talked to sixth form English students about how to get published.  Jean Hodge, who reports on cultural affairs for the Spalding Guardian, also attended and joined in.  It was quite an exciting occasion, because it also took the first steps towards setting up a short-story competition that the Great British Bookshop has agreed to sponsor at the High School.  Adrian and his colleagues and I will choose the best ten or twelve stories submitted to be published in a single volume at The Great British Bookshop’s expense.  Winners will each receive a free copy of the book, which will then go on sale in TGBB’s extensive distribution network.  I’ll be writing more about the competition in this blog very shortly.

Sixth Form writers

Sixth Form writers

I completed my day at the school with a writers’ workshop for Years 7, 8 and 9 students.  The participants explored some of the key elements of crime fiction (they proved to be very well read) and collaborated to put some of those into practice.  Their discussion illustrated their excellent grasp of linguistic and literary effects and the results were amazing!  Nearly all of these students bought one of my books at the end of the session; some bought all three.  Thank you!
Workshop 1
Workshop 2_edited-1
Workshop 3
Workshop 4
Workshop 6
Workshop 7
Workshop 8

I can’t conclude this post without saying that a remarkable library now exists at Spalding High School.  The library is housed in the same room that I knew, but what a difference in the stock!  The emphasis is on supplying students with books to read for pleasure.  It’s a place of relaxation and also a place where students can go to work in groups.  There’s none of the shushing and grim looks that any talking in the library produced when I was a schoolgirl and all the dusty old Latin grammars and ancient editions of Gray’s Anatomy have been disappeared.  Hats off in particular to Kirsty Lees, the School Librarian and Learning Resources Manager, and to her team.  The school knows how lucky it is to have them and to be able to enjoy the warm and inviting place (complete with crime scene rug featuring a splayed body) that they have turned it into.

It’s almost impossible for me to thank all the people who made this day so special.  I’m deeply grateful to Michele Anderson for making it possible; to Adrian Isted and Kirsty, for making it happen; to Eleanor and Holly, for giving me such a delightful interview; to Jean Hodge, for all her support for Sausage Hall both at this event and elsewhere and, especially, to all the students whom I met yesterday, who were such a joy to work with and who were so keen to develop their own writing.  Thank you all!

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