Picture Palace by Paul Theroux (Photography in Fiction #2)

therouxA few months ago I wrote about William Boyd’s Sweet Caress (a badly named novel if ever there was!) with the intention of looking at other novels with photography as a theme or backdrop. The one I had in mind was Paul Theroux’s Picture Palace. I read this and quite a few other Theroux books – (fiction rather than non) –  in my twenties when it made quite an impression.  On the other hand that impression had become vague over time (a famous woman photographer, a windmill, a compelling ending?) It was also long out of print and like so many novels pre-2000 not reissued as an e-book. Eventually I got hold of a second hand paperback, eager to find out what it had got my attention thirty or forty years ago. Since I did nurture an interest in photography back then, I assumed it was the subject matter as well as the characters and plot.

My rereading didn’t start well.  The yellowing (or rather yellowed) pages detracted from the reading experience even under my daylight reading lamp but I don’t think this was the  problem. The narrator, award-winning photographer Maud Coffin Pratt  is  a prickly character and although she masks a  deep vulnerability she somehow didn’t move me. The basic premise of the book (there’s a neat synopsis here) – that her career was driven  by her hero-worship of – and ultimately desire for – her older brother, felt unlikely. Not so much because  her success with the camera came about accidentally (the same could be said of Boyd’s narrator) but the fact that she continued to ride her luck only to please him. The wider family scenario – parents discovered to be conniving with racism, a sister who is both a best friend and a rival – and a run-in with a travelling circus, do round things out  successfully, but something seemed to be missing.  Nor was her contemporary conflict with the young researcher preparing a retrospective especially intriguing except as further evidence of Maud’s irascibility.

Despite a change of cover the book hasn’t changed. So has the reader? I think I’m less patient now and have struggled with novelists I loved back in the seventies. But this wasn’t a long or cumbersome book. One thing that did occur to me was that the subject of incest was probably more shocking and less widely written about then. Did that add to the impact it had on me? So a case of society changing as well as or alongside the reader. So what began as a post about books on photography has become one about changing tastes – mine and probably other people’s. It was certainly a huge surprise when I found myself comparing it to Sweet Caress – a much more episodic and rambling book – and preferring the latter.  I can only think that they are both books of their time and time has moved on for all of us.

20171204_172816_resizedHowever despite my reservations, I might hang on to my (Penguin 1979) antique edition. On a quick trawl of cover images, this one no longer comes up.Maybe I have a rarity of another kind.

Talking of physical books, the cover of Blink has been decided at last and the image licenses obtained. I am pretty pleased – but keeping you in suspense for now!





Photography in fiction (1): Other people’s photos

Fiction with photos?

I’ve just been reading William Boyd’s  Sweet Caress which I picked up when I spotted its photography connections. It’s about a girl growing up in the twenties who, after a family trauma, joins her uncle as a  society photographer in London then unshackles herself from an unhealthy relationship to reinvent herself several times over and in as many places: in from Berlin to Mexico,  New York and ultimately Vietnam.  It didn’t reel me in straight away and I noted a consensus amongst Amazon reviewers that it was ‘over-long’. I would say ‘episodic’ is more the case, but it does take its time to get where it’s going. On the other hand, that isn’t always a bad thing.

It’s a straightforward chronological narrative(contrast Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life), told by Amory Clay as she looks back on the different lives she has led from her final abode – a cottage in a remote corner of the Highlands. For a while the lack of a driving plot frustrated me, but I was eventually drawn in to this account of a restless soul who happens to be in the right place at the right time to capture iconic images of the twentieth century.

sweet caress photoInitially, one of the barriers to my enjoyment was the use of photographs incorporated into the narrative. They look like contemporary snapshots (their graininess is emphasised by being printed on ordinary book paper) and are labelled as illustrations of Amory Clay’s life and work.  But, wait a minute. This is fiction. These look like authentic illustrations but where did they come from and, most of all, why on earth are they there? The ‘acknowledgements’ refer to the many real photographers mentioned in the book but not to these photographs. Mr Boyd is either playing with the truth or teasing the reader or both, and I’m not sure I like it.

There was nothing for it but to ask Google what was going on, and it turns out that William Boyd is a collector of ‘found’ photographs – i.e. photos whose origin is unknown, photos lost by their original owners. As the Telegraph interviewer puts it,

These uncredited images of unknown subjects collected by Boyd over many years, originally without intent – are now freighted with narrative significance.

Aha – I think of Boyd arranging his motley collection of photos into a kind of story board and immediately I like Sweet Caress better than I did. But no, it appears he had the story in his head and went looking for  these illustrations, occasionally letting them take the plot in a new direction. Boyd likes trying to make fiction ‘seem so real you forget it is fiction’. Isn’t all fiction doing that same thing? Isn’t it possible to do this with just words? But the explanation does stop me fretting.

Maybe it’s this new found knowledge or maybe it’s coincidental, but from this point on I find  myself at peace with the book. I enjoy picking it up in a very busy fortnight to see where and when we’re heading next. Its episodic nature (very many chapters begin ‘I remember’)  suits my mindset.

Although Boyd claims to be ‘technically inept’ (a bit like me then!), there’s plenty to interest the photographer –  armchair or otherwise. For instance his heroine claims there are only thirteen genres of photography (that many?!) and I like the way she explains her preference for monochrome images.

The black and white image was in some ways photography’s defining feature – that was where its power lay and colour diminished its artifice: paradoxically, monochrome – because it was so evidently unnatural – was what made a photograph work best.

After so many months spent in the company of early photographs, I’ll drink to that.

Ironically, the paperback edition I read had a much more colourful (and to me less suitable) cover, but don’t let that put you off if you fancy a photographic adventure.

Jane Davis introduces Women Writing Women (don’t miss a bargain!)

I Stopped TimeI first came across Jane Davis when someone in the local Historical Novel Society tipped me off about her I Stopped Time, a fascinating account of life and photography in Brighton in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but Jane is also a contemporary novelist. Her first novel, Half-truths and White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award and afterwards she was featured her in the Bookseller’s ‘One to Watch’ section. She has since published five further novels.  I’ve recently read  An Unchoreographed Life (reviewed here) which I acquired as part of a Kindle ‘box set’ which Jane and six other members of the Alliance of Independent Authors collaborated to produce. The result is Outside the Box: Women Writing Women, seven novels (details below) under one wrapper, all for £7.99. In fact the set is a limited offer, available only until May 23rd and so I’ve asked Jane along to talk about the project before the deal runs out.



Why was taking part in this project so important to you and what were the ideas behind it?
The challenge for indies is connecting book and reader. That’s why collections like Outside the Box: Women Writing Women work so well. We know that readers are struggling to find their next read, one that will entertain, challenge and inspire them. Choice can be overwhelming and so it’s easier to stick to the authors we already know. I’m the same!  So, yes, we asked readers to trust us, but we also offered them a great deal: seven novels for the price of two. Added to this – as if further encouragement were needed – we tried to make it fun. Joni Rodger’s daughter (Jerusha Rodgers of Rabid Badger Editing) created a fabulous digital swag bag that includes a critically acclaimed novel by Joni, a free music album download by Jessica Bell and a heap of other fun and artsy surprises. Anyone who sends us proof of purchase gets entered in a draw to win one of them. (Oh, I didn’t know about this!  Ed)

How did you decide who to collaborate with?
Obviously, it was important to find others who shared the same values and aims, but we were fans of each others’ fiction before we came together as a team. A review described Roz Morris’s My Memories of a Future Life as a ‘strange and stubborn’ novel. Immediately, I wanted that book, and I lapped it up! We also felt it was important that no two books should be too alike, but they needed to have enough in common to appeal to the same target market. Our decision was to focus on our characters and the boundary-breaking nature of our fiction.

The fact that you’re an all female group is difficult to ignore.
It is, although this was completely unintentional. None of us write purely for women. Personally, I share Joanne Harris’s view that ‘women’s fiction’ isn’t a genre. All it does is reinforce the idea that books written by women are not for men. At a time when bookshops have been asked to do away with ‘boys’ fiction’ and ‘girls’ fiction’, this category seems highly inappropriate. We do know that women read books written by both men and women and that men tend to only read books written by men. Or do they? The twist in this tale is that two of our authors ghost for male writers!

What are your hopes for the box-set?
The box set has just entered its final month. I feel a little sad about that, but we decided to create something that was a genuine limited edition. After the 23rd May, it will disappear. So the project was never all about the money.
Speaking for myself, I wanted to change readers’ perception of self-published fiction, particularly those who have been fed the line that it is the preserve of amateurs. (I know I was). And yet when I explored the option for myself, I discovered a diverse group, including authors who had walked away from six-figure deals, established authors who’d been dropped by their publishers after their latest book didn’t sell quite so well, talented newcomers building a readership, innovative authors whose work doesn’t fit the market, cross-genre authors who sell themselves as a brand and best-selling authors who have never tried the traditional route. In fact, in a recent survey of over 2,500 authors, a quarter of those who had traditional deals had also self-published. There is a new breed of hybrid authors who look at each writing project and decide if it is one to submit to their publisher or one to go it alone. My belief is that the predicted growth in self-publishing will now come from authors who are currently under contract.

Are there any downsides to offering a ‘limited edition’?
Yes. We realise that it’s a huge ask to get people to review a 7-novel box-set within a 90-day period. For many people, this represents 6 months’ worth of reading. But all of our work has been reviewed extensively and so we hope readers will hop over the individual book details.

What will you take away from the experience?
I’ve learned such a lot from being part of this amazing group of writers. Really, I have such admiration for them. As self-publishers, we’ve all had to acquire skillsets that go above and beyond those of the average author: cover design, website design, interior layout, video production, PR, the list goes on. I have learned a huge amount about marketing and production, lessons that I’ll be able to carry forwards when our 90 days is done. And promotion in a group certainly gives you more courage. While encouraging others to step outside their comfort zones and to take risk on us, we’ve also had to – and the response has been incredible.

Thank you, Jane! I’ve now read another of the box set The Centauress by Kathleen Jones and found it just as absorbing as An Unchoreographed Life although in a completely different way. I’m really looking forward to the others in the collection. Everyone please check out the links below and don’t forget you only have until May 23rd to snap up this great offer. (I’m now off to enter the digital swag bag competition!)

What’s inside Women Writing Women?

BLUE MERCY by Orna Ross, “A complex tale of betrayal, revenge, suspense, murder mystery — and surprise…John McGahern meets Maeve Binchy.” IRISH INDEPENDENT

CRAZY FOR TRYING by Joni Rodgers, “Refreshing and provocative… Think Jane Eyre with rock and roll.”  HOUSTON PRESS

MY MEMORIES OF A FUTURE LIFE by Roz Morris, “Absolutely gripping…Visual and visceral, original and odd.” FOR BOOKS SAKE

THE CENTAURESS by Kathleen Jones, “A compelling narrative of a writer’s passion for her work.” HELEN DUNMORE

AN UNCHOREOGRAPHED LIFE by Jane Davis, “An extraordinary level of emotion… superb storytelling.” THE CULT DEN

ONE NIGHT AT THE JACARANDA by Carol Cooper, “Sassy and classy in equal measures. A must.” DR. PIXIE MCKENNA, media doctor and TV presenter

WHITE LADY by Jessica Bell, “Edgy, pacy, and chillingly real.”  JJ MARSH, author of The Beatrice Stubbs series

Website http://www.womenwritewomen.com/









Links to Buy:
Amazon.co.uk: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Outside-Box-Women-Writing-ebook/dp/B00S35A90U/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1429891112&sr=1-1&keywords=Outside+the+Box
Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/product-reviews/B00S35A90U/ref=cm_cr_dp_syn_footer?k=Outside%20the%20Box%3A%20Women%20Writing%20Women&showViewpoints=1

Jane Davis
Jane Davis

To find out more about Jane Davis:

Visit her website: www.jane-davis.co.uk and subscribe to her blog
‘Like’ her Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/JaneDavisAuthorPage
Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/janerossdale
Follow her on Pinterest: http://pinterest.com/janeeleanordavi/boards/



Bristol Women Writers and Unchained

Time to celebrate!

Less than two weeks to go until the official launch of Unchained, our anthology celebrating the 400th anniversary of Bristol’s original chained library. After a whole year of preparation, it’s truly exciting to see it all come together.

 Join us for the launch

Reference Library by Andrew Eason – via Flickr

If anyone out there hasn’t heard the details, the launch event is part of the Bristol Festival of Literature (lots of other great stuff going on there) and will be at  7.30 on October 23rd in  Bristol Central Library –  in the gorgeous Reference Library itself. Every local writer or even reader we know should have had an invitation by now, but if you have somehow been missed, do leave a comment and I’ll get one to you.

Or download our Press Release (.pdf file 220KB approx)

UnchainedOf course we hope the joy will not be confined to Bristol. This is a celebration of all libraries, everywhere  and other things besides. If you can’t join us on the night, the book is in bookshops now and available to order online. Don’t forget the proceeds are going to a great cause, the National Literacy Trust.

There’s still a lot to do before the Big Day, but now we have the book in our hot little hands – a great job by Tangent Books and Wildspark Design. Worth a small celebration!

Bristol Women Writers

By the way, this post will be stuck fast to the top of this page for the time being – new posts (if time allows!) will pop up underneath.

Future of the novel – set menu and a la carte

Nothing like a portentous title to get the comments coming in – well that’s my cunning plan. But it’s a question I do ponder from time to time amongst more mundane issues like what to cook for supper and if my bedding plants (yes I still do bedding plants) will survive another gale. It actually started with Andew Marr (bless, is he better yet?) who wrote a column a few years ago saying he thought he might have ‘gone off’ fiction for the simple reason he was starting (as I recall) to find novels in general a bit, well, ho hum I suppose. And the awful thing is, I kind of know what he means. Not that I don’t like fiction (I don’t read much else) but having widened my reading remit to include decent indie authors and the things that Amazon/Twitter/Facebook throw at me (you may also like etc etc – I’m just too suggestible) I’m finding that more and more often I start a book and don’t finish it, not because there is anything wrong with it, but because it just isn’t really catching my interest. As a reader, I find this a bit worrying. Is my reading palate becoming jaded?

As a writer it’s terrifying. To write a decent novel is hard enough. To write one that stands out from the crowd is harder still and even more necessary than ever. Right now I’m reading a commercially published thriller set in ancient Rome which is well written and well researched and has a great opening scene. But even so, I kind of feel I know what’s coming – or what kind of thing. In short, having had two great Roman reads not so long ago, can I be bothered with another? A much-lauded literary prize-winner (no, not Mantel!) has met with a similar fate.

Daring - and brilliant!
Daring – and brilliant!

So what have I enjoyed? Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life starts off in a way that feels totally bonkers before settling in to a really great read. John Harding’s Florence and Giles had one of the most unusual voices I have ever read, and of recent ‘mainstream’  reads, only Heat Wave written in 1999 by Penelope Lively, an absolute  master of the genre, has really captivated me. All of these had a piquancy which kept me interested, much more more ala carte than set menu.

Writer, readers, publishers are all in the same boat, I think, and what we have now is a bit of a polarisation in fiction into genre fiction (crime, romance, horror or mystery) which is predictable in many respects (and I say this with no disrespect whatever to any of the fab genre writers). But we know these books will do what they say on their respective tins and are happy to pick up new brands and even stuff in the bargain/indie shelf because hey, a love story is a love story and a murder is a murder. So for 99p what’s not to like? Which is why I think indie genre authors can do pretty well. People understand the brand.

The flip side is that ‘non-genre’ fiction needs either a very big name or a corker of a USP, i.e. a tin that looks different to anything else we have ever seen, or made from some eye-catching material if it’s to get out notice at all, and when we pick it up we might still not really fancy it unless we’re pretty sure we’re going to get value for our £5 or £6 e-book compared to an indie £1.99.

So where is this going? Is general fiction dead? Well I don’t think so, but we need to be aware that a good story well told (which what agents and publishers are always telling us they want) might not actually be enough. As readers we are fickle and swing from what’s tried and tested to something entirely novel. If we go for the new,  it has to be not roughly what we expect but something a lot better, something that surprises and delights.

Where does this leave the writer? Well, no one said it would be easy.

By the way, apologies if any comments here go unanswered for a couple of days –  a short break in transmission is coming up.

Jane Riddell and Water’s Edge

Jane RiddellWhen  author and editor Jane Riddell approached me about a year ago with an invitation to appear on her Papillon blog I was delighted to accept and also fascinated to learn that her recently finished novel was called Water’s Edge, which for quite some time was the name of my own book until it became A Kettle of Fish. Here was a book I really wanted to read!

Since then Jane’s novel has been accepted by Thornberry and will be published later this week. I’ve also had the pleasure of a sneak preview and can tell you it’s an absorbing story of sibling relationships and rivalries set in Switzerland – a country strangely neglected by novelists IMO, with one or two honourable exceptions, of course.

So hello Jane, it’s lovely to have you here on my Bristolian blog, even if I am at this moment in your own fair city of Edinburgh!  Please tell us a bit about yourself and your background

Firstly, thank you , Alison, for interviewing me for your blog. I am Glaswegian but defected to Edinburgh in my twenties.  For many years I worked as a dietitian before returning to university to do a degree in Health Studies.  After that I switched to health promotion with the topic of smoking cessation.  In 2006 I took a three year career break to move to France with my family.  Until then writing was a hobby.  In France I had a lot more time to write and learned to regard myself as a writer!
When I returned to Edinburgh in 2009, I studied for a Masters in Creative Writing.  In March 2011, I became the proprietor of an editing business, Choice Words Editing.

 Please give us a short description of Water’s Edge  

Madalena invites her four adult children to Switzerland to celebrate the anniversary of her hotel.  What she doesn’t realise is that there are tensions and secrets among them, which will play out during their visit.

I can see how Water’s Edge fits the brand (?) of ‘quiet fiction’ – how did that idea come about? Which other writers would you align yourself with? Who would be the target market?

I am fascinated by interpersonal relationships, in particular, family ones.  I liked the idea of a family reunion where all is not what it seems, and the idea stemmed from there. Water’s Edge is similar to books such as Friday Nights (Joanna Trollope), Family Album (Penelope Lively) and Trespass (Rose Tremain).   It’s targeted at a mid market female audience. (Someone like me, then!) 

I was really interested that you set this book in Switzerland as I did some travelling there I my younger days. Was there any particular reason for choosing that setting?

As a travelphile I like to set my books in foreign countries.  After I’d finished writing a book based in the south of France, I thought about having an alpine setting for my next one.  I love mountain and lake locations, so Switzerland came to mind.  At that time, I had the chance to have a short holiday on my own, and decided to go to Brunnen, on Lake Luzern, where I’d spent a night on my first family holiday abroad as a child.  It was only when I arrived there that I decided to make Brunnen the setting for Water’s Edge.  It still intrigues me why I didn’t make the connection earlier!

It’s interesting that you refer to Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac at various points. I wondered if in doing this you wanted to somehow compare/contrast your own story, or is it more a coincidence of place and genre?

The location was inspired by Hotel du Lac although at the time of writing the first draft of Water’s Edge, I didn’t know that the hotel used in the film version was actually on Lake Luzern.  (In the book, the protagonist, Edith Hope, is exiled to a hotel on Lake Geneva.)  I am an Anita Brookner fan, although I haven’t the same tolerance of the large chunks of introspection in her stories that I used to have.  I do keep reading her, however, for her exquisite use of language, including her imagery, and her ability to convey mood and atmosphere, both in her London and Parisian settings. At a conscious level, my story wasn’t inspired by that of Hotel du Lac.
(Ah, I did think Hotel du Lac was on Lake Geneva which I know quite well.  I didn’t realise they’d changed it for the T.V. version.)

To me Water’s Edge is very much an ensemble piece, with no one character taking centre stage. I have to ask – of Portia, Madalena, Annie and Vienne, do you have a favourite?

Not really.  I spent more time in my head with Portia and Vienne than the other principle characters, but that doesn’t mean that either of them is my favourite. Although I don’t condone Portia’s behaviour, I feel for her, so anxious is she that her secret will be discovered.  And although I am sympathetic to Vienne’s insecurity, I don’t particularly relate to her.  When I finished the final draft, I did find myself wanting to be with these two characters in particular, though this was more to do with a general feeling of bereavement that I experience when I finish writing a novel. (Yes, I can relate to that!) The life experiences of the main characters are different to mine, apart from the fact that, like the three daughters, I spent four years at a boarding school.

 You have some very distinctive names for your characters, I’m curious about  how you chose them – did they all have these names from the start, or did you  change them as you went along? 

I have always regarded my name as being boring and therefore tend to give my characters more interesting ones.  I don’t know why I opted for Portia as the name for the eldest daughter.  The inspiration for Vienne’s name came from the Joanne Harris novel Chocolat, where the heroine is Vianne.  When I first watched the film, I heard it as ‘Vienne’ and liked it.  In my mind, Annie is short for Annelise, but realise that if too many names are unusual, the reader might find it a bit much.  Madalena – a Danish woman – was originally Francesca, then I realised her temperament was more Northern than Spanish or Italian.

 I see there another novel in the pipeline. What is the inspiration? How is it going?

Chergui’s Child was actually written before Water’s Edge, but I have rewritten it as my writing style has changed a lot since I finished its first draft.  It tells the story of Sienna who inherits a fortune after her aunt dies, at the same time learning something significant about her past which will send her on a life changing journey.   I am now in the final stages of editing it and should be finished by early summer (assuming we have one).

 Do you have any further writing projects in mind?

I have been working on an editing guide for geeks, and hope to have this published soon.  I am also editing a book on English grammar which I wrote (in conjunction with one on French grammar) while living in France.  As for novels, I have several more in various stages of completion.

waters edge coverWater’s Edge (Kindle Edition) will be out  on April 22nd. You can read more about Jane on  http://www.quietfiction.com and at Thornberry Publishing