I kept up an intermittent diary on the Diamond Twig website, carried on here with my current thoughts, ideas and work.
An interview with me by Ardea Creatives, a bright young pair of women. Check it out here
Borders or Bridges?
I have been dreaming about borders – not surprising really, with the current state of the country. But I never thought my latest books would end up being so relevant to current affairs! I’m referring to my YA novels, Ren and the Blue Hands trilogy. The themes are many: love and betrayal, secrecy and spying, how to make the right choices in difficult circumstances, labourers versus the nobles, questions of isolation versus international co-operation affected by ignorance, fear and mistrust of foreigners. Sound familiar?
I didn’t imagine Brexit or the rise of nationalism would be exercising our minds when I began writing my novels, but I was interested in the idea of how we deal with change, both as individuals and society as a whole, when it is unstoppable and inevitable. I used Ren, a young woman, a dye worker, to be the centre of the story and her promotion to Lady’s Maid and into a secret society as the catalyst for the plot.
I set my world in a fictional 16th Century, so I could mould it to my needs, although I kept it realistic and used the technology and knowledge available then. I chose it because it was a period when the world was beginning to open up, with explorers sailing further across oceans and discovering new territories, with merchants following not far behind, eager to exploit the opportunities for new and exotic goods. This was a period that saw the beginnings of global capitalism. You might not consider this is appropriate material for YA readers, but I wanted to write a story that I would have wanted to read as a young woman. I was interested in human relationships, but also the power in personal and wider societal dealings. I wanted love, yes, a romantic thread, but I also wanted to understand the world around me, have my eyes opened. I wasn’t particularly interested in boarding school stories, or boyfriend trouble in the narrow sense.
I read my parents copies of Brave New World, Of Mice and Men and 1984, there wasn’t really a teen fiction market in my day. My other favourite reading was Myths and Fairy tales. Worlds similar to our own, but with a twist, where strange and wonderful things could happen, both tragic, comic and poetic, full of metaphor and imagery. So when I began to read more adult fiction, it’s not surprising I was drawn to Ursula Le Guin, Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood (apart from many others). Speculative fiction allows us to imagine other ways of living and loving, but also sends us back to question our own society and see that maybe rules, roles and culture aren’t simply ‘natural’ or immutable.
The first in my series of books was Ren and The Blue Hands, published by Red Squirrel Press in 2016, now available as a kindle edition from Amazon. We follow Ren through the dramas and ups and downs of her personal struggles, torn between her roots and fellow Blue Hands, and her emotional commitment to the man who she believes is betraying the dye workers. Her journey leaves her at the end of book 1, deserted by her lover who she has supported and saved from the governing forces, putting her own life in danger. She is bereft, but harbours a hope that she will see him again, and she’s already beginning to question the traditional dye of her home country Calico.
Now finally the last two books: 2nd Ren and the Blue Cloth and 3rd, Ren in Samara, are launching on 2nd December 7pm at The Lit and Phil, Newcastle.
Find out what happens to her next!
Everyone is welcome, the event is free and you can purchase copies if you wish.
My next book Ren and The Blue Cloth – due out in December, (here’s a preview of the front cover minus text)
Read the opening paragraphs here: Chapter 1 Braymer
‘Please, call me Ham. No formalities.’
The Chancellor had offered to show his new visitors the sights of Braymer.
Although it was summer here, it was a lot colder than home on Calico. Ren held her warm cloak tighter and took a breath.
‘Pull yourself together, Ren. What is the matter with you?’ Lilac chided her.
On board ship, she’d called her nausea sea malady. Now she had no excuse. She stepped into the carriage feeling shivery. Ham gave the nod and they set off. Ren pushed down her queasiness, wanting to breath fresh air, and was upset by the dishwater smell of the harbour and lack of blue sky. Her first sight of another country was a disappointment: the grey sky weighed over her head, colours were muddy and muted, and the size and noise of Braymer harbour were overwhelming compared to her home port on Calico. She looked up: the city rose into a ring of low hills cut through by the river: grey stone buildings and hundreds of smaller wooden houses, all higgledy piggledy, tilted up in every available space. Dogs barked, wheels racketed on cobbles, people were calling and hurrying about. Through the noise Ren caught Ham’s words to Lilac.
‘Big men must have broad backs, and important women too.’
‘I’m not afraid,’ Lilac replied.
Ren frowned: ‘Afraid of what my lady?’
Lilac didn’t reply. Ham pointed to a grand structure standing on its own in a commanding position at the top of the town:
‘The Wool Hall, where the business happens. Prices are agreed for the raw wool, it’s woven here, then it’s sent to your dyers on Calico!’
Ren considered her short journey from a Blue Hand Dyer to Lady Lilac’s maid then promoted to her Notary in the space of a year. Now here she was on an official visit to a foreign country. The belief that she was part of something important, huge, that connected to her little island home had become a reality. The carriage slowed to pass through a crowd waiting for water transport, boats with striped awnings, the owners advertising names and numbers: Far Resting Two ten! Marsh Flats six a penny!
‘Hi – look at that!’ a man shouted and pointed at Ren. Others looked in surprise and laughed. A little lad pushed nearer and made faces at her.
‘Be off with you!’ The carriage driver flicked a warning with his whip over the boy’s head. Ren turned and saw faces staring. The lad had a stick and stabbed the air towards her.
‘They’ve never seen a woman in Notary green before. You’ll be quite a talking point,’ Ham said. ‘You and Lady Lilac both.’
‘That’s what we’re here for. To talk.’ Lilac remained composed. ‘Ignore them, Ren.’
What brings you Joy?
I participated in a Joy Workshop for older women, we were asked to make a list. Here’s mine – when I’m feeling low, making myself write is often the answer. It can be hard work and frustrating, but All writing is ultimately a question of solving a problem (William Zinsser) and there’s nothing more rewarding that problem solving. If writing doesn’t bring you joy, why do it? It certainly doesn’t bring money! It was fun, but difficult to make the list, trying to get beyond the obvious (my grandchildren etc.) and then keeping it short once we’d got talking and sharing our lists. A fascinating afternoon with Karen Ross, Professor of Gender and Media, Newcastle University. This is part of a project looking at Ageing, because there’s going to be a new research centre opening in Newcastle next year. Being old is to be trendy it seems.
Encouragement and Role Models
13th April, last week, was the 14th anniversary of my friend and fellow worker Julia Darling’s death.
She was enormously important to me as a role model, a supporter and collaborator. I wouldn’t be writing now if it wasn’t for Julia’s encouragement. She gave me legitimacy, permission to put pen to paper and to take myself seriously when I did. She was enthusiastic, funny and great to work with. Together we’d bounce around ideas for writing, for performing, for events and for encouraging other women to join in too, then go ahead and make things happen. Julia had boundless imagination and energy and shared both generously. If I had a fiver for every woman who’s told me how important Julia was to their writing, I’d be a wealthy woman.
Durham Book Festival has put out a call for three commissions of £1000 each for this year’s festival The details can be found here:
The three inspirational starting points are Space – to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo Moon landings, Happiness and Good News (I think we need some of this at the moment!) and the 90th anniversary of the publication of A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf.
I have a copy of the book at home and opening it, I saw that I’d written on the first page the date I bought it – 29/5/73. I was 21 years old, in my first year at Lancaster University (my first experience of the north too) and the book was revelatory. It described experiences and situations that I recognised but hadn’t necessarily named: men’s view of women writers (women in general) as inferior for one thing. I seem to remember Male Chauvinist Pig became a handy catchphrase around this decade. Also research showed that if exam papers were marked anonymously, women did better, revealing unconscious bias by markers. I remember arguing with my American Literature tutor, along with other women in the seminar group, that Norman Mailer’s writing about women was negative and violent. His response then was ‘You must realise that woman represents a metaphor for America.’ In other words, don’t take it so literally, girls. I hadn’t read the wealth of critical literature that exists now and our arguments were dismissed. Woolf’s book was the start of a long self-education, and influenced my future attitudes to feminism, women’s place in the world and female creativity.
I reread A Room of One’s Own again on Sunday and laughed and nodded my way through it. We’ve come a long way since the book was published, and since my university days of the 1970s. I wonder what Virginia Woolf would have made of today’s literary scene? Her book still has relevant things to say to women today. We are all more aware in the 21st century, of the unconscious biases and lack of opportunities based on class, race, gender, sexuality etc. Everyone needs support, encouragement, and role models to inspire them. Our literature is the richer for a greater variety of voices and experiences, and society more tolerant too, hopefully.
I love crosswords and quizzes, word puzzles and puns, spoonerisms and riddles. Anything wordy that plays around with spelling and order, that makes them do surprising and clever things. My parents were both in the acting world, so I was raised on a wide diet of Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Greek classics and poems quoted at likely and unlikely moments – I was hooked on the drama, the play of words, the pleasure of rhyme which can be both funny and profound.
Writing poetry is a bit like sorting out a puzzle – what goes where, how does the line break affect the meaning, or give extra meaning? What’s hidden beneath the apparently simple surface? Like a drama in dialogue, what’s not said or alluded to is as important as what is spoken aloud. We all use metaphor and simile even when we’re not aware of it:
‘My depression is a black dog’
‘Stop fidgeting like you’ve got ants in your pants!’
They enrich our everyday exchanges, making our language more vivid.
I have been known to do a quiz on a conference call (i.e. phones on loud speaker) with all my siblings Newcastle to Cornwall. My sons have inherited (been forced!) an interest in puzzles, friends of my younger son call him Mr Quiz because he likes them so much. My older one had developed a form of cryptic crossword that links with his interest in performing rap. Here’s an example:
Tetracypton: A Gender One
womb: with out male bias initially, the prenatal bliss chamber
defies: feeds I growing. It refuses to yield to
social: communal agitations of ‘lo, a cis!’
construction: in this fabrication, deceit foreshadows an odd stoic turn.
Fred Phethean’s going to be doing his Tetracrypton show at Cobalt Studios, 10 – 16 Boyd St, Heaton NE2 1AP on Tuesday March 26th, 7.30 – 10pm. Tickets on the door suitable for 14 + It will be a fun night of cryptic clues, quizzes and drinks.
Sex in a YA novel
can be a tricky subject. It determines age readership suitability, and can cause controversy – such as Melvin Burgess who wrote Doing It, about young lads and their attitudes and experiences of it. Anne Fine suggested it was ‘filth’ should be published as an adult novel, if at all.
Or Jack of Hearts and Other Parts by L.C. Rosen about male gay sex, which has just been published in the UK and reviewed by the Guardian as ‘Humane, sex-positive writing of the funniest, filthiest and most heartening kind.’
I have a sex scene that is a crucial plot point in my YA novel Ren and the Blue Hands.
Books like these might upset some people who think they ‘encourage’ young people in the ‘wrong sort of way’.
When I was a teenager I looked to books to teach me about things; there was a mystifying world of passionate feelings and complex emotions that I was on the edge of. I wanted to know more, but was fearful of getting out of my depth. Books like these YA novels didn’t exist in my youth, so I read adult books. So whatever Anne Fine thought, you can’t stop young readers searching for the stories and knowledge they want. These days, as some critics have pointed out, without positive books and role models, some young people look to pornography for answers and that’s more fictional and harmful than these thoughtful novels.
We forget at our peril that young readers are switched-on and aware of the world and know when they are being patronised or lied to. They deserve the truth, even hard to bear truths. They already get a huge diet of vampires, violence, death and other difficult issues. Sex is no different. As long as it isn’t gratuitous or badly written, acknowledging a young protagonist’s physical urges and experiences is natural and can provide a strong narrative drive.
Personally, I get a bit bored with the ‘girl pursues boy as love interest’ in teen novels as if that’s the only story. In Ren and the Blue Hands, class and power are intertwined in Ren’s relationship with Bark, which complicates the situation. Interestingly, when I began this novel, in the dim and distant past, my main character was called Mulberry (a name I still love) and when a friend read a draft copy, when it came to the sex scene she exclaimed ‘I was surprised by Mulberry’s nipple! I never thought of her as a sexual being.’
My friend’s advice was make her more physical, living in her body more throughout the story, so it led believably to the sex.
I had to think hard about the story, the character and what I realised was her passivity. The key to changing it was giving her a new name: Ren. Mulberry had sounded like a nursery rhymish little girl. Ren was a short, strong name and immediately, I saw her in a completely different way. I rewrote a lot of the novel and it worked. There isn’t a lot of sex, but when it arises it’s relevant to plot and character, and I hope subtly done.
Where do you start?
That’s the thorny question – with an idea? a phrase worming its way round your head? do you begin with pen and paper or go straight to the computer screen?
I’ve put one of my earliest published poems on the poem of the month page – not because I’m particularly proud of it, but it shows a new writer’s concern with writing – taking (pinching) lines from other poets, worrying about how to go about the writing and finding/making the time to write. I was 40 and pregnant with my second child when Modern Goddess was published with that poem in it. So, you might call me a late starter.
It was often the way back in 1992 (yes, that’s how old I am). Julia and I believed in supporting new writers, particularly women, who we helped by publishing their first collections with our press Diamond Twig.
Modern Goddess was our first publication and Inviolate, a poetry collection from Sara Park, was the last in 2011. I have finally closed the press down, along with the website, though it’s available as an archive.
But it’s never too late to start anything new – seriously writing in my 40s, yoga at 53, and my first published novel, in 2016. I was 64.
Now I’m learning how to handle social media, putting my YA novel Ren and the Blue Hands into an e-book format and getting to grips with running my own wordpress site.
Keep an eye out and you’ll find a new poem each month and you might discover my thoughts about the writing process and where I’m going to be giving readings or running workshops. For example:
Free Flowing Words at Hexham Library Thursday 7th February, at 7pm with another wonderful poet Joan Johnston.
And are you interested in writing poetry? then sign up for this:
Reading and Writing Poetry at the Lit & Phil
6pm – 8pm Mondays 25th February to 15th April 2019
In this 8 week course we will look at and discuss various examples of contemporary poetry,
using this as a way of inspiring our own writing. The course will be led by Ellen Phethean
and Kathleen Kenny, two experienced writers and poetry tutors who will offer writing
exercises designed to break through creative barriers and ignite fresh ideas. These sessions
are open to anyone with an interest in poetic form are tailored to suit both new and more
To reserve a place telephone the Lit & Phil on 0191 232 0192
Course cost is £80 payable at the first meeting.
Thanks for reading this and the poem of the month.
Here’s an interview with me by Helen Walker talking about why I write and a performance we created for the celebration of Martin Luther King