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.
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.
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!
Stamford in Lincolnshire bestrides the River Welland (which also flows through the Spalding of the DI Yates books) and marks the ancient ford across the river where the Romans chose to route Ermine Street on its way north. Going there to sign copies of The Crossing, the fourth DI Yates book, seemed very appropriate!
It seems to be a continuing theme of The Crossing events that they are fated to happen in extreme weather. Harlow Carr was squally, Spalding was tempestuous and yesterday Stamford was bitterly cold! The cold hit me as soon as I got up yesterday morning. Venturing out with the dog before dawn, I noticed that a clutch of flowerpots outside the back door seemed to have sprouted a mysterious white substance. Closer inspection revealed it to be snow. Once clear of the parking area in front of my house (treacherous with black ice), I saw that all the rooftops and hedgerows in the village were twinkling with crisp snow.
It’s a two-hour drive to Stamford and, although my husband and I were heading due south, it seemed to get colder as the sun rose higher in the sky. Stamford itself was in the grip of a vicious north wind which, the weather forecast informed us, was blowing straight down from the Arctic. It didn’t seem to deter the citizens of the town: wrapped up in thick coats, hats and scarves, all seemed to be going about their business cheerfully. The Christmas decorations had been put up, most of the shop windows now carried Christmas displays and the cold served only to make the atmosphere more festive.
My destination, Walker’s Bookshop in the town centre, was as warm and welcoming as always. Its Christmas stock had been laid out beautifully and customers came, sometimes in droves, sometimes in flurries, to admire it and to browse and buy. I’d been allocated a table near to the cash desk to sign copies of The Crossing and we did a brisk trade throughout my allotted time there.
I’d like to thank both the people of Stamford and the several visitors to the town whom I met not only for buying the book, but also for the fascinating conversations in which we engaged throughout the day. There was the lady whose father had owned some of the gravel pits that I write about in Almost Love. She told me that when she was a child they’d found many things in the pits, including a mammoth’s tooth (I mention the mammoth’s remains in the book), a pewter salver and several skeletons, some of which had been buried face down, perhaps because they belonged to murderers or suicides. The artefacts had all been given to a local museum, but the bones were removed by police who ‘just put them into bags and carted them away. It was the sixties and seventies. They didn’t bother to reinter them or find out how old they were.’ Shades of Sausage Hall! It is tantalising to think that some may have been the result of more recent murders: if so, the murderer(s) got off scot free! There was another lady from Cornwall who said her neighbour was Dawn French. She asked me about my writing routine. I said that although most of my writing is done in my office, I can also write on trains and in cafes. Dawn, apparently, must have absolute solitude and silence when she writes. Several men made purchases: they tended to be more interested in the series and how the novels relate to each other than more general information about the South Lincolnshire setting or how they came to be written. People of all ages stopped to talk to me. My youngest buyer was still at school. I was delighted that so many young people were interested, including a young woman who would have bought the whole set if we hadn’t run out of Sausage Hall and said, while buying the other three, that she’d order it. Some old friends also made the considerable journey from Nottingham to give their support.
The time flew by, as it always does for me when I’m in a bookshop. I had a truly wonderful day. I’d like to thank Tim Walker and Jenny Pugh for arranging the signing session and Mandy and Karen for looking after me so brilliantly while I was in the shop. It’s a very distinguished bookshop indeed and well worth the short detour off the A1 if you happen to be passing that way.
On the way home, it didn’t seem so cold, but perhaps that was just because I was enveloped in the rosy glow of having been able to meet so many new enthusiasts.
“… 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Yesterday, I felt amazingly lucky to have been invited to launch The Crossing at the bookshop at Harlow Carr Gardens, near Harrogate in North Yorkshire. (Strictly speaking, it was a pre-launch, my first ever!) I’ve been to Harlow Carr before, but a long time ago, and I think my first visit pre-dated the shop. It’s certainly well-established and flourishing now: it’s one of the loveliest bookshops I’ve visited and, some of its customers told me, undoubtedly the best one in the Harrogate area. Far from hiding its light under a bushel (or perhaps a pergola), it has succeeded in building up a huge clientele from many miles around. If you are ever in the vicinity, it’s well worth making a detour.
Yesterday dawned late. The weather was cold and squally, with sharp downbursts of torrential rain. As I drove further north, fewer and fewer leaves were clinging to the tress, while the roads and pavements were a whirling mass of auburn, chestnut and brown as the less tenacious ones came tumbling down and as rapidly began to disintegrate into sogginess.
At Harlow Carr, the rain was thick and steady. The place is in quite a sheltered spot, in a hollow after a hilly climb on winding roads, so the trees that line the walks and the woods that form a backdrop to the formal gardens were still respectably clothed in gold and russet (though a vicious wind in the afternoon dislodged many of their leaves and set them swirling and eddying around the patio outside the shop). The shop itself was a haven of warmth and hospitality. Yesterday marked the launch of its Christmas stock: the bookshelves were heaving with tempting new titles and the rest of the shop was equally festive, a cornucopia of beautiful displays of cards, toiletries, accessories, seasonal decorations and all things Yorkshire.
I was welcomed by Isabel and Nige, who showed me one of the best displays of my books I’ve ever encountered (helped, of course, by the fact that there are now four of them, clad in the distinguished Salt covers designed by Chris Hamilton-Emery, of which I am always so proud). My signing session was scheduled from 13.00 to 16.00 and, as it was already after 12.30, Isabel whisked me and my husband to Betty’s (Yes, Harlow Carr has a Betty’s as well! For the uninitiated, Betty’s tea-rooms are second to none on the planet.) to choose a delicious sandwich lunch. Then it was back to the staff room in the bookshop for a cup of tea. This was actually one of my favourite parts of the day. There are similarities between the staff rooms in bookshops the world over, so new ones are always reminiscent of my bookselling days and whenever I’m invited into one I immediately feel at home.
My three-hour signing stint passed all too rapidly. I met some very nice people and engaged in conversations on a huge variety of topics, from tractor seats to the novels of Peter Robinson and how I schedule my own writing. It was a new kind of audience for me: practical, engaged, leisurely. Almost everyone was wearing wellingtons or hiking boots. Many pushed children in buggies. All were wrapped up in glistening waterproofs against the rain.
And very many people stayed in the shop for long periods of time, some of them upwards of an hour. I don’t think that it was just because they were sheltering from the rain: there is a rich variety of other places within the Harlow Carr complex where they could have done that. They were genuinely interested in (all kinds of) books and writing and also extremely careful when it came to choosing the ones they were going to buy. Every sale was the result of considered deliberation, whether of my books or those of other writers. It made me very proud and appreciative when the choice fell on one of the DI Yates novels!
I loved this shop immediately and appreciated the many kindnesses and efficiencies offered by all of its staff, especially Isabel, who continued to look after me for the whole afternoon until, off duty, I was able to roam the floors and make some purchases of my own. Isabel and Nige said that they’d only just started arranging author events (though you wouldn’t have known it from their professionalism) and kindly offered to keep in touch and invite me again. I shall be there like a shot!
I left one small present of my own: a complete set of the four DI Yates novels for the shop to raffle. Everyone who buys one of my books over the next month will be offered a raffle ticket, and the winner will receive the full set of books after the draw. If you live in Yorkshire or are planning to visit the county between now and the first week in December, perhaps this might provide a further small temptation for you to track down a very great bookshop!
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.
I first encountered the work of Catherine Eisner in 2008, when I read Sister Morphine (also published by Salt) and it absolutely blew me away. I was convinced at the time that it was a major, very important novel and the comparatively modest success that it has enjoyed since then has not caused me to change my mind. I still believe that it will be ‘discovered’ by a much larger audience, including some discerning and influential critics, much in the same way as John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces finally achieved the (sadly posthumous) attention it deserved.
A Bad Case has strong links to Sister Morphine, picking up on some of the same themes and even exploring further the lives of some of the same characters. Both works consist of a series of discrete but linked short stories, a format which I find very appealing. It enables the author to expand the sometimes constricting form of the short story whilst taking advantage of the fine discipline that it imposes, simultaneously giving the characters more depth by setting them in a shared context.
I have to confess that, although I by no means belong to the school of thought that opines that an author’s biography and his or her work are inextricably linked (i.e., you can’t understand the one without the other, a wonderful excuse for prying), Eisner herself intrigues me almost as much as her work. This is because she is profoundly knowledgeable in so many different fields: she understands the pop scene of the 1960s; she obviously knows a lot about the publishing industry; she exhibits more than a passing acquaintance with a wide range of ‘mind-altering substances’; she is erudite, although she wears her learning lightly, pronouncing telling mots justes upon the giants (and some of the minnows) of Western civilisation’s authors, artists and musicians across many centuries; she understands Latin and several European languages besides English; she has an acute ear for dialect (in A Bad Case, southern Irish, especially) as well as the varying cadences of speech that derive from differences in social standing; and, if she has not lived among the British aristocracy, she has clearly had opportunities to observe it at first hand. Wow!
But it is not Eisner’s accomplishments as a polymath that most fascinate me. I am hooked on her work because she writes with a vigour that both contributes to and has pushed the boundaries of an outstanding literary tradition. I don’t have a single word that encapsulates what this tradition stands for, but I can list some of its luminaries. They are Jonathan Swift (though Eisner’s indignatio is more of the jocosa than the saeva variety); Somerville & Ross and Samuel Beckett. Elements of A Bad Case also remind me of Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour. It is not lost on me that all of these writers are Irish, but although Eisner is clearly interested in Ireland and Irish characters, I doubt that it is because she has Irish blood herself. I think it is because her strong sense of the inescapable absurdity of fate, her ability to communicate the disgusting terribleness of the human condition, her knack of pulling off some elements of the supernatural while staying just this side of credibility and her wonderful power with words, all interlaced with robust black humour, happily also epitomise the best of Anglo-Irish writing.
So to the writing itself. Eisner may often be tongue-in-cheek, but the subjects she chooses are harsh. They include false imprisonment (I found A Room to the End of Fall, the first story in the volume, of particular interest, because my next novel, The Crossing, also explores false imprisonment, though in quite a different way.), paedophilia, treason, espionage, adultery, suicide and madness. The cover of A Bad Case quotes Kate Clanchy, who says that Eisner’s writing is ‘slightly, scarily deranged’. Although I understand perfectly what Clanchy means, this is not my reading of Eisner’s work. The characters may be deranged, but not the author. She pays them the compliment of presenting their world through the prism of their own outlook and sentiments, which have been conditioned by their often adverse experiences. If the reader can’t keep up, that is too bad: if there is one thing Eisner never does, it is patronise her readers by pandering to some notion of sparing their refined sensibilities. If the reader feels unsettled, that is good. If, despite understanding the richly conflicting, occasionally brutal and always uncompromising world that Eisner paints, the reader also laughs out loud, that is perfect. I have no better words to express my admiration than to say again: Wow!
Over the past few years I have played an Eisner guessing game with a friend. (I do hope that if Catherine Eisner reads this, she won’t be offended!) It’s only half serious and has its roots in our first reading of Sister Morphine, when we were each convinced that ‘Catherine Eisner’ was a pseudonym for someone much better known in the world of literature. If we’d taken bets on it, he would have lost, because his preferred candidate has since died. I’m still half-convinced that my own prospect is the correct one: I may never find out the truth. However, if you are also intrigued, I know that there is only one way for you to get closer to it: by reading Sister Morphine and A Bad Case, if possible in that order. I heartily recommend both of them to you, as I am certain you will not be faint-hearted.