Write On, A Leicester Writers’ Showcase

18 January 2017 from 6.30pm at Central Library, Bishop Street, Leicester.

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Review of Jessica Mookherjee’s “The Swell” will appear on 18 January 2017.

Guest Post: Writing about home

The Widows Confession Sophia Tobin book cover “The Widow’s Confession”, my second book, is a murder mystery set in 1851. Thanks to my madcap writing process, the plot has gone through various twists, turns and changes, but the setting has remained constant: Broadstairs in Kent, the seaside town where I grew up.

Writing about a place I know so well was initially daunting. I thought that being so familiar with a town would make it hard for me to reinterpret it and see it through Victorian eyes. But it wasn’t difficult to edit out modern buildings in my mind, and see the traces of the past: the grey flint cottages, Holy Trinity church, and the pubs, like Neptune’s Hall and the Tartar Frigate. A scan through Victorian directories shows they were there in 1851, and the names of those who lived there. I used the places, but I left the real people in peace – only one character in “The Widow’s Confession” bears the name of a real person, and I hope I have treated him well.

There were advantages to the familiarity. I know what it feels like to live by the seaside: its bleakness in winter, its intense vivacity in summer. I knew I could distill something out of those feelings, and see if I could make them correspond, even a little, with the thoughts of those who lived there 150 years ago. I well remember the jolt, each year, when our empty town suddenly filled with holidaymakers, and took the seeds of that to imagine the attitude of Broadstairs folk in 1851 when the Londoners arrived by the carriage-load and made the town their own.

There are also places in Broadstairs which have an extra potency for me. The driveway leading up to the Rectory of Holy Trinity is one such place. Looking up that shadowy, winding driveway as a teenager always stirred my imagination. Rather than delving into its past, I drew upon its significance to me as a psychological space, and the ominous, complex feeling it provokes in me. For me, those memories are as valid a source as all my research.

I had, at least, a little distance: I left Broadstairs in my twenties to work in London. My relationship with London is entirely different: its liveliness, endless variety and freedom has been hugely important to me as a writer, and as a result I set my debut novel there. But writing about my first home means drawing on layers of memories and experiences, from the sound of the sea on rough winter nights, to the sight of a beach full of tourists. If my relationship with London has been a rollercoaster of an affair, my relationship with Broadstairs has been one of quiet solidarity and friendship. We know each other well: in happiness and sadness, through all the seasons. And I hope that intimacy lends depth and colour to the portrait of it in “The Widow’s Confession.”

Sophia Tobin By Sophia Tobin

“The Widow’s Confession” is published by Simon & Schuster

Sylvia Plath The Spoken Word (British Library) CD Review

The Spoken Word poetry by Sylvia Plath

The British Library’s “The Spoken Word” series of CDs feature poets reading their own work from the BBC sound archives and have finally got round to Sylvia Plath (according to the list in the CD, the only other women to feature are Stevie Smith and Edith Sitwell).  She made 17 radio broadcasts between 20 November 1960 and 10 January 1963, although only 7 survive.

The CD opens with an interview recorded with Ted Hughes, “Two of a Kind” where both were invited to speak about writing poetry and living with another poet.  As you’d expect, Ted Hughes is rather reticent and Sylvia Plath more generous with her answers, although the questions are fairly inane and the interview doesn’t reveal anything people aware of both poets’ biographies don’t already know.  At the point of the interview both poets are living in a small flat in London with a small child, Frieda, and effectively living off savings and small amounts of income from writing.  Sylvia mentions that Ted can write even with the distractions of other people in a room whereas she needs solitude otherwise she’s too tempted to join in the conversation.  There are hesitations and interruptions as there always are in a live interview where the subject is not given the questions in advance.

There are poems too, including “Leaving Early” and “Candles” recorded in October 1960, “Mushrooms” recorded in January 1961 along with Ted Hughes reading his “The Pike”, “The Disquieting Muses”, “Spinster”, “Parliament Hill Fields”, “The Stones” recorded June 1961, “The Surgeon at 2 am” recorded in August 1962 and “Berck-Plage” recorded in October 1962, with Sylvia’s brief introductions.  At first Sylvia sounds wary and her pronunciation is cautious.  So it’s not surprising that where she sounds most at ease in on “Tulips” which was read in front of a live audience rather than in a studio.  But the later tracks show her becoming accustomed to reading in a studio and more at ease with presenting the poem as a live recording.  Sylvia did read her poems to herself whilst drafting and editing but there’s a huge difference between murmuring to yourself in a study and reading a poem for broadcast. 

That’s not to say she was precious about her readings.  There’s also a brief interview where she was asked why she stayed in England.  She starts with Milton’s tree at Cambridge, wandering round London and see double decker buses and scenes recognisable from Dickens.  But goes on to her first experience of English sea: the muddy grey mizzle of Whitby poles apart from growing up on Cape Cod.

Sylvia was hampered by being tone deaf: she would have struggled to hear her own tones as she read so would find it hard if not impossible to judge how the recording sounded to others and whether she’d got the emotional tone right.  This would have added to the self-consciousness of the earlier recordings.  Tone deafness is a bit of a misnomer in that problem lies with an inability to interpret the tone when listening to someone speak.  Seeing someone face to face allows you to see facial expression and body language so you can compensation for what you can’t hear.  But when you only have the voice and you can’t interpret whether that voice is happy, sad, irritated, angry, bored, although speed and volume of the voice may hint at the mood of speaker, you’re generally left with just the words.  Problem is, most people are sloppy with words because they rely on tone to get their message across.  Sylvia would have had a more acute ear for rhythm and sound patternings in works whilst simultaneously being disadvantaged by not being able to interpret the tone the words were said with.  It would be more difficult for her to assess how her own recordings sounded.

The CD is rounded off with her review of an anthology, “Contemporary American Poetry”.  It’s a shame some of her recordings have been lost but wonderful to hear her read some of her own poems.  I could practically feel those tulips burn through their wrapping as she read.  Warmly recommended.

Buying Poetry Books to Read

All writers should read, especially would-be poets who want to differentiate themselves from the wannabe poets who only read and publicise their own work at the expense of learning from others and developing.  But where to actually buy poetry? 

Recently I wandered into a branch of Waterstone’s, a bricks and mortar shop, and eventually found a poetry section.  This poetry section was full of anthologies and a handful of single author collections from Faber and Faber, Bloodaxe and Carcanet.  Good poetry, but Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Don Patterson and Carol Ann Duffy aren’t representative of contemporary poetry as a whole.  On the staff recommendations shelves there was no poetry at all, but a mix of contemporary and classic novels.  No point asking the staff for poetry advice.

Borders UK is now shut, but had an unhelpfully ambivalent attitude towards poetry.  On one hand it did stock some poetry magazines, but on the other hand, it didn’t signpost its poetry section and frequently moved it so once you’d found it, you couldn’t be sure it would still be there on your next visit.  Playing ‘hunt the poetry section’ got tiresome, particularly when staff blanked you because they didn’t know where it was either.  So any potential book buyers wanting advice on poetry couldn’t ask for staff recommendations.

Independent bookshops aren’t usually very good with poetry either and tend to be wary of stocking poetry for fear of it turning out to be vanity published or simply not very good.  Clearly brushing up knowledge of local poets and good poetry publishers is beyond their resources.

On-line, however, there’s a wealth of resources:-

  • Amazon stocks poetry.
  • Individual poetry publishers usually have an on-line store, try Salt, Original PlusArrowhead Press or search for the publisher you had in mind.
  • Review sites, such as Sphinx, give useful guidance.
  • Poetry Book Society members enjoy discounts on poetry books.
  • PoetCasting – listen to poets reading their work.
  • Reviewing – if you have the discipline to read and review regularly to editors’ deadlines, offering to review poetry books is a good way of discovering poets or publishers you may not otherwise have come across.

Where do you usually buy your poetry?

“Charmed and Dangerous” by Toni McGee Causey (St Martin’s Paperbacks) – Novel Review

charmed and dangerous toni mcgee causeyBobbie Faye wakes to discover her trailer’s flooded and phones her brother to curse him for not fixing the washing machine as promised.   As he doesn’t answer, a utilities worker cuts off her electricity.  Thinking her day couldn’t get any worse, her phone rings, the caller identified as her brother.  She answers to a gangster who’s kidnapped her brother and wants her to bring in a family heirloom in exchange for her brother’s release.  Her brother’s put on the call to verify this.  Determinedly self-sufficient, Bobbie Faye is not going to ask for anyone’s help.  After all, she just has to get to the bank, get the tiara out of the safety deposit box she has the key for and hand it over… Unfortunately, nothing in Bobbie Faye’s life is that simple and an ill-thought out plan by a Professor of Antiquities hoping to double-cross a gang of sadist gangsters, a genuine FBI agent, a bogus FBI agent and a police detective who’s also a seriously pissed-off ex-boyfriend complicate matters as Bobbie Faye races against time and her spectacular but credible bad luck.

The pace, whilst fast, is actually finely-judged with superb comic timing, as is the dialogue.  Good use of location too: Louisiana isn’t just a pretty backdrop but its geography becomes part of the plot.  “Charmed and Dangerous” couldn’t take place anywhere else.  The ease with which Toni McGee Causey hooks a reader in and keeps her turning the pages is proof of the well-honed skill and craft that keeps the everything moving.  The plot is complex, but doesn’t lose the reader.

Massive fun: a great, light read supported by a depth of writing talent.