Charlotte's Web

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Top Five Novels of 2011

The books I love most are the ones I press on others, saying, ‘You must read this. Absolutely, you must. Ignore the wet patches where I read it in the bath, the tear stains where I wept, the coffee blotches where I spluttered with laughter, the lint from my handbag when I carried it around with me, the small drops of blood where this book dived into my veins and took up residence there with its beautiful sentences and refused to come out. Ignore all these, and read this book because you will be better for it.’

This year, I’ve had the privilege of reading five books that I want to press on people, bloodstains and all:

Ali Smith There But for The

This is the book that got away, the one that should have topped the Booker and Orange Prize lists and didn’t. Smith is the queen of sentences, of the poetry of words, of rhythm and of little short sharp electric shocks that bite you at the full stop. I’m not a re-reader but this is a book I will return to.

The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

I’m only on page 326 and still have another 250 pages to go, but this book is also making me jealous on sentence level. For example, ‘He spoke German nicely, keeping an amused pedantic eye on the slowly approaching end of his sentences’  is exactly what speaking German feels like. Hollinghurst’s descriptions of English social situations are masterly – the double of layer of what is happening and being said and the undercurrents of what is being felt and thought. I’ve never seen another writer do it as well. He also writes beautifully about desire. It’s taking me forever to read, mostly because I am savouring every mouthful.

Dodie Smith I Capture the Castle

I rampaged through this in a day. It’s hilarious and wistful, and the protagonist Cassandra is superbly charismatic. One of those books you dive into and when you look up again, you can’t quite believe that the world is the same because you are changed on the inside. Glorious.

Jennifer Egan A Message from the Goon Squad

Sadly, since I read this as an ebook, I can’t foist a blood-stained copy on anyone, but I can urge you, urgently, to read it. It has a similarity to There But for The, in that it covers a cast of characters vaguely related to each other without much in the way of what creative writing teachers would call a plot arc. Not to say it’s plotless, not at all, but the value is in the way she draws her characters (sharp lines, funny, often hard). Egan also shocks and surprises on sentence level and, as it turns out, that is a quality that  makes me love a book.

Which leads me to – ta dah! – The Charlotte’s Web Book of the Year:

David Grossman’s To the End of the Land

I cried when I read it, cried when I described it to my book club and I get a lump in my throat when I think about it now. This novel is a punch in the solar plexus, a long slow gentle punch that you only wake up to about 400 pages in. It rivals one of my other favourite novels, Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved, for its depiction of grief and it throws the messy, neurotic, fearful underbelly of parenting into the light. Read it if you dare! I recommend tissues for the tears and something stauncher for the blood, for it will haunt you.

What were your top reads in 2011?


What I’m Reading

Ms Musings is a style leader, both in terms of shoes and reading, so I’m grabbing her books meme and outing myself as a slavish follower of fashion. I hereby give you:

The Five Books Meme

1. The book I’m currently reading:

a. Paper book

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides. When I love a book, it’s usually because there’s a sentence that grabs me like a trout on a hook and I know I have to let the author’s mind reel me in. With most books, the hook sentence usually occurs somewhere in the first chapter. With The Marriage Plot it was the very first one: “To start with, look at all the books.” Done! Here’s my lip, please hook it! TMP makes me think of Freedom, but Eugenides is much warmer about his characters than Franzen is. He reveals their flaws and foibles, but with a generosity and warmth that is heartening. Also these are three characters who mediate their love lives through the books they are reading at the time – luckily, since I’m reading and writing crime, I no longer do this, but I do remember having Jean Rhys and Angela Carter days at university. I’m halfway in, but I’m taking it slowly because this is a book that I never want to end.

b. Ebook

I’m also reading Before I Go To Sleep, the runaway crime success of 2011 by SJ Watson. It tells the story of a woman who loses her short-term memory while she sleeps, so every morning her husband, Ben, has to tell her who she is, who he is and remind her of the story of their marriage. In order to keep some sort of order, she keeps a diary that she hides from him (her psychiatrist phones her every morning to tell her where to look for it), and on the front page of the diary are the words ‘Don’t trust Ben.’ I’m heading into the final act, and it’s getting very exciting – when I can wrestle the iPad from the four Angry Birds addicts with whom I live.

2. The last book I finished

The Leopard by Jo Nesbo. I am a desperate and huge Nesbo fan, but this one let me down. I thought it was overly-long, far too gruesome and there were too many plot strands for the tension to remain high. However, I am more than a little in love with Harry Hole, so will continue to read the series. Note to Jo: your audience won’t be bored if something happy happens to Harry.

3. The next book I want to read

Well, it’s hidden in the Christmas drawer, but I doubt I will be able to wait that long: Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending.

4. The last book I bought

I bought Germany’s Top Husband the Steve Jobs biography for his birthday, but I have a growing wish list on The Book Depository that contains these books.

5. The last book someone bought me

Germany’s Top Husband bought me The Marriage Plot. Did I mention that he was top?

What’s on your book list? Feel free to play along.


Wish Lists

Having been given carte blanche from you lovely lot to keep on keeping on – and that fact that both Marks & Spencers and Aldi have already got their Christmas aisles groaning with mince pies and Lebkuchen respectively – I am happy to share with you my Christmas wish lists. Here are the movies and the books that I have missed this year and which I am desperate to see or read. Please feel free to add suggestions in the comments – I welcome your thoughtful tips for both. Please note that on the movie front, I am an “easy listening” watcher. I don’t do violence, torture, sex marathons, zombies or slashers. However, I can cope with very edgy humour – welcome it, in fact.

Without further ado, here is my movie wish list:

1. The Kids are Alright

2. Bridesmaids

3. Beginners

4. We Need to Talk About Kevin

And now for the books:

1. Before I Go to Sleep by SJ Watson.

2. Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma. Nova is long-term blog friend, who is rapidly becoming a YA superstar. Imaginary Girls is her second novel published under her own name.

3. Deep Country by Neil Ansell. Neil’s a Litopia connection, but I read the Guardian review before he joined the writing site and earmarked the book then and there.

4.  A Kind of Intimacy by Jenn Ashworth

5.  Darkside by Belinda Bauer. I loved her debut Blacklands and can’t wait for this.

6. Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman. This is the Booker Prize shortlister that appeals most to me.

7. Reading Women by Stephanie Staal. A history of feminist writing.

8. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

9. A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

I have just reactivated my Goodreads account, so if you are there, do let me know. I’ve just lost half an hour wondering around reading everyone’s recommendations, so will reserve the right to update my wish list according to what I find there and what you recommend.

What’s on your watching and reading wish lists?


I Submitted

… my revisions and therefore I deserve a list. After I open a large bottle of wine, that is.

Thanks to the lovely Ms Musings – who found it at Thomas’s Porch – here is a list of The Sunday Times 50 Greatest British Writers Since 1945. Which ones have you read?

1. Philip Larkin – yes
2. George Orwell – yes
3. William Golding – yes
4. Ted Hughes – yes
5. Doris Lessing – yes
6. J. R. R. Tolkien  – yes
7. V. S. Naipaul – started, got bored, put down
8. Muriel Spark – yes
9. Kingsley Amis – yes
10. Angela Carter – yes
11. C. S. Lewis – yes
12. Iris Murdoch – yes! big favourite here and long overdue for a re-read
13. Salman Rushdie – yes
14. Ian Fleming – nope
15. Jan Morris – nope
16. Roald Dahl – yes
17. Anthony Burgess – no
18. Mervyn Peake – yes
19. Martin Amis – yes
20. Anthony Powell – no
21. Alan Sillitoe – no, not even heard of
22. John Le Carré – yes
23. Penelope Fitzgerald – no
24. Philippa Pearce – no, not heard of her either
25. Barbara Pym – yes
26. Beryl Bainbridge -no, but I want to
27. J. G. Ballard – no
28. Alan Garner – no. Who he?
29. Alasdair Gray – no
30. John Fowles – yes
31. Derek Walcott – yes
32. Kazuo Ishiguro – yes
33. Anita Brookner – yes
34. A. S. Byatt – yes
35. Ian McEwan – yes
36. Geoffrey Hill – no
37. Hanif Kureishi – yes
38. Iain Banks – yes
39. George Mackay Brown – no
40. A. J. P. Taylor – yes
41. Isaiah Berlin – no
42. J. K. Rowling – yes
43. Philip Pullman – yes, but only part of, aloud to a child
44. Julian Barnes – yes
45. Colin Thubron – no
46. Bruce Chatwin – yes
47. Alice Oswald – no
48. Benjamin Zephaniah – yes, but how does he get on the list and Zadie Smith doesn’t?
49. Rosemary Sutcliff – no
50. Michael Moorcock – no

Out of my ‘nos’ are there any I should chase down and fling onto my TBR pile? Unmissable books that I’ve missed and without which my reading education is poorer and sadder?

Do tell.


May Madness

May is turning out to be quite the month chez moi, which means my presence here at Charlotte’s Web will continue to be vague, scattered and somewhat erratic. Here, in order of importance, are three of the many things happening to me:

1. Complete novel revisions. It turns out that my main revisions are plot-related and plotting is my weakness, which is something I’m going to have to address if I plan to be a professional crime writer. That aside, I’m done with cogitating and have committed to completing and handing them in by the end of the month. I’ve said it! Feel free to stop me in the street and question me in depth about my progress, even if I look evasive and try to distract you with cheesecake.

2. Give creative writing workshop. At the end of the month, I’m giving a weekend workshop to undergrads at Heidelberg University. I’m looking forward to it very much. I visited them last week and asked what they want from their workshop and now have a clear idea how to structure it.

3. Run marathon. For an ex-asthmatic and renowned non-sportler this is the most intimidating, though I am slightly exaggerating the extent of the run. It’s a team event and four of us run a marathon as a relay. My leg is just over eight kilometres: short for some, very long and daunting for me.

I’m also attending to an admin list as long as my arm, one that includes passport refreshing for certain members of my family and other unspeakable horrors. If I’m ever rich/successful/clever enough to have an admin assistant, it is this kind of thing I will gladly hand over. Ticking boxes and filling out forms is not my forte. Give me character motivations and new plot strands any day.

However, I’m finding comfort in reading and have read some excellent books, which I will detail in another post. Right now, Siri Hustvedt’s The Summer Without Men is glowing all buttercup-yellow and tempting next to my bed.

And in other news, today is the last day for voting for Expatica Germany’s best blog 2010/2011, so if you feel moved to support me, here’s the link.


Cafe Society

One of the most appealing things about Germany is its cafe society; places where you can nurse a coffee, read a book and watch the world go by. You are never hassled to move on, they serve breakfast all day long and usually have an array of freshed baked cakes. German cafes tend to have a handy stash of magazines and newspapers, so if you happen to leave your book at home, there’s always something to read.

Writing at home is fraught with booby-traps: the laundry, the phone, members of my family, so I have spent large chunks of the last three years writing in Heidelberg cafes where I have no alternative but to knuckle down. I thought that over the next few weeks, I’d introduce you to some of my favourites.

The first candidate is my newest find, the Literature Cafe. On arriving in Heidelberg, the first thing we did was join the library, a lovely glass building overlooking a small park in the centre of town. It is light-filled, groaning with books and scattered with cushions for readers to lounge on. My family and I felt immediately at home.

Attached to the library is the Literature Cafe and yesterday, without my small attendants and in need of a quiet hour to face my novel revisions, I went there. The cafe is glass-walled, like the library, so even on a gloomy, rain-bespattered day, it was light. There is a terrace that will come into its own in a couple of months time.

The cafe has a small menu of hot and cold drinks, breakfast items, sandwiches and cakes, which are apparently baked by the owner herself. There is a short daily specials menu, and since I was there at lunch-time, I ordered the spicy vegetable coconut soup, which was delicious and an extremely reasonable €3.50. Along with a large Milchkaffee and a mineral water, my bill came in at €7.50. The service was polite and efficient, and in the German manner to which I have grown happily accustomed, not over-friendly. On Sunday, the Literature Cafe does a brunch for €6.50 per person, which is a bargain. There is a selection of 50 newspapers from around the world, which customers are welcome to pick up and read with their coffee.

For me, the Literature Cafe’s biggest selling point is its proximity to  the library. You can get your books and head straight for the cafe to start reading. The clientele yesterday were mainly people on their own, either reading or writing. Those in couples or groups spoke quietly, as if in deference to the library next door, and the only person who broke the quiet was a four-year-old who had a spectacular melt-down but was quickly removed by his mother. I could still hear his screams of  ‘Mean Mummy! Mean Mummy!’ going down the road as I smugly returned to my personal oasis of coffee and words.

Heidelberg’s Literature Cafe can be found at Poststrasse 15. It is open Tuesday to Friday from 10am till 8pm, Saturdays from 10am till 5pm and Sundays from 10am till 3pm.


10 Top Books of 2010

In case you feel the need to slap me, I have already submitted the novel revisions to my agent. Despite having a houseful of guests this weekend and childrens’ social calendars to massage, I was a good little writer. And there is a secret to my success: you know how all the famous artistes of history had wives who did all the actual bloody work, while the fellas scratched their bums, sucked their quills and tried to find words that rhymed with orange? Well folks, I have a husband and a damn useful one at that. I have to admit that there was a certain amount of bliss, sitting in my office, hearing the noises of my family and our friends above me, smelling the scent of food being cooked by someone else, knowing that all was well in the world and my only responsibility was to put words in a row.

One of my blog readers recently bemoaned the fact that I no longer keep a list of the books I’ve read during the year and that she and her Swaziland book club would like some top tips. So this post is dedicated to M (how are you, honey?) and the ladies in Piggs’ Peak, Swaziland, who are in need of hot book recommendations.

Without further ado, here are my Top Ten Books of 2010:

The How We Miss You, Stieg Larsson Crime Fiction Award goes to Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman. This is a biting, edgy crime thriller set in a wintery Oslo with jaded cops, evil murderers, lots of corpses, inappropriate sex and heavy drinking. A great read and a page-turner that would make an excellent Christmas present for anyone who loved the Millenium Trilogy.

The Laughing All the Way to the Bank Award for Literary Fiction goes to Emma Donaghue whose novel Room did not win the 2010 Man Booker Prize but which consistently out-sold the other five short-listers. Room, reviewed here, is a brilliant exercise in first-person narration and a stunning depiction of incarceration from the perspective of a five-year-old child. It’s moving, surprisingly funny and very beautiful.

The Maybe I Won’t Emigrate to Australia After All  Award for Difficult Fiction goes to Christos Tsiolkas for The Slap. At a suburban barbeque, someone slaps another person’s child, and the novel tells how family ties and friendships dissolve and unravel as a result. Tsiolkas, dare I say it, does not pull his punches and Aussie society is revealed, warts, prejudices, misogyny, racism and all.

The Beautiful Book in Translation Award goes to Julia Franck for The Blind Side of the Heart. This is World War II written from the German perspective and it is tragic, heart-wrenching and exquisitely written. Read it if you dare.

The I Laughed, I Cried Animal Lovers’ Memoir of the Year Award goes to John Grogan’s Marley and Me. I read this against the background of my family’s debate about whether to get a dog or not. Marley, being a good-natured oaf given to idiotic pratfalls, did not press his species’ case successfully, but it is a delightful book.

The Damn, I Wish I Was this Clever Award goes to Margaret Atwood for The Year of the Flood, part two in her dystopian trilogy. I’m not usually a huge fan of science fiction, but I’m loving this series, and Atwood is of course brilliant, incisive and sharp.

The Put Your Feet Up And Dive In Big Fat Page-Turner Award goes to Stephen King for Under the Dome, reviewed here. The reviewer says he ‘constructs a world so compelling  that you are obliged to keep reading, pressing the accelerator against your more civilised instincts, because you just know the end is going to be ghastly and grim.’

The Makes You Hungry Without Wrecking Your Confidence in the Kitchen Cookbook of the Year Award goes Bill Granger for his fabulous Holiday, a feast of fresh flavours, novel ingredients and charming pictures of the lovely and boyish Bill.

The Lifetime Achievement Award goes to Jane Smiley whose thirteenth novel, the beautiful Private Life was published this year. The tagline reads ‘Marriage can sometimes be the loneliest place’ and in this book she traces the relationship  between two people who really shouldn’t be together, but who survive a lifetime of marriage against society’s expectations of them.

The Wolf Hall Book of the Year Award goes to Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife, reviewed here. This is an ambitious book and I was nervous of reading it, because I don’t much like George Bush and I didn’t want to feel sympathetic to him in any way. However, it is brilliantly done and of course is not really about George or Laura Bush, but about Alice and Charlie Blackwell. It is an audacious attempt to fictionalise the lives of people who are still living, and while my mind swung from the fictitious characters to the real ones and back again, in the end I gave in to the sweep of Sittenfeld’s story. She deserves prizes and paeans for a big, bold novel and quite frankly it is she, not Jonathan Franzen, who the USA should be lauding as the leader of their modern literary canon.

And in case anyone wishes to send me books or give me gifts, here is my remaining wish list for 2010:

Anything by Margie Orford

Tom Vowler’s The Method and Other Stories

Polly Samson’s Perfect Lives

A Million  Miles from Normal by Paige Nick

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

In Search of Adam by Caroline Smailes

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The De Lacy Inheritance, Book Review and Author Interview

After a brief blast of sunshine this weekend, German weather has returned to form: cold, wet, Novemberish. With the last few autumn leaves lashing the windows, this is perfect snuggle under the covers and read weather, and luckily I have a piles of lovely books to do just that.

One book I have just finished is Elizabeth Ashworth’s debut novel The De Lacy Inheritance. Set in 1192, the year Richard the Lionheart was captured in Austria, its central character is Richard FitzEustace, an aristocractic soldier who has returned to Lancashire from the Crusades with a damning disease – leprosy. His family cast him out, but at the same time, place him under obligation to seek out their relation, Sir Robert de Lacy, rumoured to be near his deathbed, and press the family’s claim to his estate.

Roger, his headstrong bully of a younger brother, is now head of the family and is determined to marry off their sister Joanna to a wealthy and unattractive old landowner. Joanna takes matters into her own hands and follows Richard on his quest, where, to complicate things, she falls in love with Geoffrey whose father, the arrogant Dean of Wallei, is the other claimant to the De Lacy Inheritance.

Richard is a fascinating character, who, despite his leprosy and the fact that he has been cast aside by society, still manages to secure his family’s future without wanting the rewards for himself. It is quite odd to read a book where the main male protagonist is a hermit and outcast, but Ashworth makes him appealing by recalling his lost love in the Holy Land and showing his deep warmth towards his younger sister. At the end he is offered a chance to rehabilitate himself, to claim his land and his birth-right, but he chooses a spiritual path. He is an unlikely hero, but all the more admirable in contrast to the venial Roger and Dean of Wallei.

The De Lacy Inheritance is a delicious, complex web which Elizabeth Ashworth deftly weaves for our reading pleasure. As a historian with a special focus on Lancashire, her writing is lit from within by the acuteness of her historical detail and her love for the county and its history makes the novel all the more vivid. This is definitely one for the Christmas list.

Elizabeth kindly agreed to answer some questions about The De Lacy Inheritance and her writing process. Many thanks, Elizabeth!

Charlotte: The De Lacy Inheritance is your fourth book, but your first novel. After writing three history books, how different did you find the novel-writing process?

Elizabeth: I think the important word that’s missing there is first ‘published’ novel.  It isn’t the first one I’ve written.  When I was a child I used to churn them out relentlessly, and a few years ago I wrote a modern day novel but never pursued publication because it was too personal in content.  I’ve always been a story-teller, though my fiction work has been mostly short stories.  I used to think that a novel would be much harder than a short story, but surprisingly I found it easier.  I find that I can swap from non-fiction to fiction fairly easily because my non-fiction work does tend to have a narrative style and the historical fiction does include facts – so the books overlap rather than being distinctly different.

C: Part of The De Lacy Inheritance is based on fact. How did that come about and how did you weave fact and fiction together?

E: It began when I was writing Tales of Old Lancashire.  I discovered a legend about a Holy Hermit who lived in a cave under the castle at Clitheroe and the legend says that he was a member of the de Lacy family who was a leper.  I was fascinated by the idea and went off to dig deeper into the factual history.  After writing a short account for the book I kept thinking about this man who was a leper and who could have inherited a fortune except for his disease.  I felt compelled to tell his story.  So, using the facts as a backbone, I began to add detail which was fictional.  I found that I liked having a ready-made story to build on although it was also a challenge because I had to write within those facts rather than letting my imagination take over completely.

 C: Although TDLI is set in 1192, I thought it had a modern sensibility, espoused by the main female character Johanna FitzEustace. Could you talk about how Johanna’s feistiness and refusal to kow-tow to family pressure is essential to the novel?

E: I don’t think Johanna was the only girl in 1192 to refuse to give in to family pressure.  In medieval literature there are girls just like her.  One named Christina, for example, who was determined to become a nun and refused to marry no matter how much her parents tried to persuade her.  I don’t think Johanna was typical, but I hope that she is believable and although she is ‘modern’ in some ways I tried to keep her contemporary to the times in which she lived.  How essential she is to the storyline is an interesting question because for me this was always Richard’s story and Johanna wasn’t in the original version.  It was only when I realised that the novel was far too short, and that I probably needed a female character and some romance if I was to interest a publisher, that I threaded her story around Richard’s.  It’s reassuring that the join doesn’t show and that she is seen to play an important part in the eventual outcome.

C: Your central male character, Richard FitzEustace, is a leper who is condemned to live alone for the rest of his life. He is, however, a very appealing character. How did you manage to strike that balance?

E: I don’t think of Richard as a leper.  To me, he is the handsome and attractive man that people saw before he contracted the disease.  As a leper he is viewed differently because of his outward appearance, but that does not change who he is – only how he is perceived and how people treat him.

 C: You are now writing your fourth novel. Can you tell us anything about it? What is the status of novels two and three?

E:  I’m currently wrestling with a novel about a later member of the family, Alice de Lacy.  The factual history that surrounds it is very complex with barons and earls changing allegiances more often than their underlinen – and it’s proving challenging to explain the necessary facts without becoming boring.  It’s very much a work in progress at the moment and I’m enjoying stretching myself but some days I cross out more than I add to it.

Novels two and three are currently with my publisher and I’m hoping to share some news about one or both of them quite soon.  One is based on another Lancashire story about Sir William and Lady Mabel de Haigh.  The other centres around a little known fact about Richard III and identifies a possible identity for the mother of his two illegitimate children.  Perhaps I should have people vote on which one they want next, though I hope that both will make it into print eventually!

 C: What is your writing process? Do you have any particular routines or methods that help you write?

E: I’m not sure I have a writing process.  I have scenes that run in my mind like a film and when I’ve imagined them for a while I try to write them down, though what I write often has no resemblance to what I was thinking.  It’s rather like going into a trance and it all comes tumbling out.  I try to sit down to write whenever I can find the time.  It can be hard to begin, but it’s even harder to finish and if I can’t write I become very frustrated.

 C: As a much-published author, do you have any tips for apprentice novelists? Any pitfalls that we might avoid in our writing, or in our approach to agents and publishers?

E: Persevere: lots of people give up after a few rejections.

Write: the more you write the better you will become.

Read: you can learn a lot from seeing how other people do it.

Be lucky: try to be in the right place at the right time.  It helps.

Make your own luck:  seek the opportunities that will ensure you are in the right place at the right time.   

C: You have been writing since you were 11, when you had your first article published in Diana magazine. What are the aspects of storytelling that particularly appeal to you?

E: I enjoy making a connection with readers.  I want them to come and share my fictional world and enjoy themselves there.  I want them to meet my characters and get to know them, and I like to send them away with something new to think about.

 C: Are you a keen reader? Do you have any favourite authors? What is the best book you’ve read this year? 

E: Do you want to see my groaning bookshelves?  Yes, I love to read.  I read fiction and non-fiction.  I’ll try anything and I like to challenge myself by reading books that wouldn’t always be my natural choice.  Best book this year?  It’s hard to pick one, so I’m going to pick two that complement each other:  Agincourt by Juliet Barker (non-fiction) and Azincourt by Bernard Cornwell (the fiction version).

C: When you are not reading and writing, what do you do?

E: If I’m not either reading or writing I’m often in a state of frustration wanting to do either one or the other.  The only things that distract me are old castles and bookshops – though I do quite like eating as well.


Hope Against Hope, Review and Author Interview

Hope Against Hope by Sally Zigmond is a fabulous Dickensian slab of a novel. Readers who like a big thick book, as I do, will be entirely satisfied by its ambitious scale and rattling tempo. Just like the railways against which it is set, Hope Against Hope thunders along its track, taking some twists and turns along the way, but delivering the reader safely to her destination at the end.

At the dawn of the Victorian epoch, sisters Carrie and May Hope are separated by unfortunate circumstance. Carrie goes to work in a Harrogate hotel, one which barely lives up to its name as it seldom has any guests, and May is inveigled into a ‘girls’ school’ which turns out to be anything but. For the next ten years, fate and history conspire to keep the two apart. One strand of the novel follows Carrie as she becomes one of Harrogate’s most successful hoteliers and the other follows May to Paris, where she becomes a seamstress and later a dressmaker to the rich and famous. After following the sisters on their separate courses, Zigmond skillfully winds them back together, as May is forced by tragic loss to leave Paris which is in the throes of revolution. The sisters have to overcome a decade of misunderstanding and learn to trust each other again.

Set against a backdrop of revolutionary industrial progress, Hope Against Hope is a very modern novel. The sisters, while they fall in love, are not reliant on men for their safety and security. They both make their own way in business, are independent and resourceful. They both set up alternative family structures and while they have their share of obstacles, they both pick themselves up and start over, using the skills they have learnt and summoning the support they have built around them.

Sally Zigmond has done a sterling job. Hope Against Hope is a great read, firmly located in its setting and underscored by humour and warmth. It’s the kind of book you could comfortably give your mother or mother-in-law for Christmas, knowing there are no rabid scenes of sex or violence. I loved it and it’s on my Christmas list for Mrs O senior (avert your eyes, Betty!).

Sally has kindly agreed to come and join us here at Charlotte’s Web for an interview about Hope Against Hope in particular and writing in general. Thanks, Sally, and welcome!

Charlotte: Your novel, Hope Against Hope, is set in Harrogate, Leeds and Paris between 1837 and 1848. What attracted you this particular period specifically and to historical fiction in general?

Sally: ‘I don’t know’ is the easy answer to both questions but I’ll do my best! I have always enjoyed reading historical fiction (not necessarily that about kings and queens but about the way ordinary people lived) and although I have written contemporary short stories I began to find myself writing more and more based on historical events, people and characters. I can’t really say why.  I have always been drawn to the very early Victorian period. (Again I don’t know why.) It was a time of great change and turbulence. The industrial revolution was changing the way people worked and lived. It was a time of great scientific and engineering progress  and, of course, the railway revolutionised travel. Plus it was the time of the Romantic poets and romanticism in general.  

C: On Amazon, the novel is described as ‘a halfway house between literary historical and family saga.’ While you were writing it, did you have a specific genre in mind and were you conscious of the conventions of that genre?

S: Yes and no. I wanted to write what I like to read. I like meaty and satisfying novels like the great Victorian ‘triple-deckers’ popular in  Victorian times. I was aware, however, that this would be frowned on today and that I would pretty early on be classed as a romance or a saga writer. I have deliberately fought against writing a ‘typical’ historical family saga because I  think the genre has got itself in a bit of a rut these days and has come to be known pejoratively as ‘Clogs and Shawls’. Catherine Cookson was the absolute queen of saga where a downtrodden beauty overcomes poverty and such things as a drunken father-husband and I don’t think there’s a writer today who can do it as well as she did. So I deliberately chose to steer clear of what has now become a cliche. I also wanted to inject some humour. I realise that I made things difficult for myself but I am unrepentant!

C: In the novel, Carrie Hope and Alex Sinclair are clearly made for each other, yet you manage to keep them apart for 568 pages. This delicious but agonising separation keeps the reader turning the pages, as does the separation between Carrie and May. Did you find it hard to achieve?

S: Funnily enough I didn’t. I needed that time to show them both changing. Carrie was a bit bossy and determined to ‘go it alone’ at the start and Alex had a habit of running away from emotion so I wanted to show them slowly maturing and thereby moving closer together. The same with May, too. She was a bit of a silly girl to begin with but her experiences in Paris changed her for the better, too.  

C: Hope Against Hope has a multi-faceted plot, many characters and a variety of settings. How much of this did you plan and how much of it developed organically as you wrote?

S: As I said in answer to your second question, I made the decision very early on that I wanted to write a Dickensian type ‘baggy’ novel with various plot strands that keep twisting and turning around each other. Initially there were two plot strands that I removed completely-on the advice of an agent who still didn’t take me on! I wish ion a way that I’d kept them but I saw her point. Having said that, several of the sub-plots I kept in grew organically as I told the story. Both Bob Old and Tildy began as very minor characters but the more I wrote, the more they came to represent the inexorable rise of the Victorian middle class. And it became a bit of a joke to provide them with a new child every time we saw them! 

C: On your blog, the very excellent Elephant in the Writing Room, which I recommend every aspiring writer should follow, you describe Hope Against Hope’s momentous journey towards publication. Did you learn any specific lessons from your path to publication and do you have any tips for apprentice novelists? 

S: I learned an awful lot along the way. The first obvious thing was that 250,000 words (the original length) was far too long for today’s market! A shame in my opinion but I can see why. The second was how relatively easy it was to remove those 100,000 words. (Although time-consuming.) Whilst I have learned that editors and agents do know their stuff and what they say is well worth listening to, one shouldn’t be too quick to obey them unless you know they’re the right agent for you. One agent made me write a totally different novel set in a different period and more of a traditional saga. She did try to find a publisher. This failed because the editors were saga editors and they said it wasn’t a ‘proper’ saga. So she failed and therefore she ‘let me go.’ This taught me that although she worked at a very reputable agency, she was not the right agent for me and that I should stick to writing what I want to write, whilst still making sure others might want to read it. It’s a hard balance to achieve and I’m not sure I’ve found it yet.

C: You are a much-published short story writer and have won many competitions. Is there a short story of yours that you are particularly proud of and why?

S: Sometimes, out of the blue, a story comes to you that seems to flow from the moment you start writing it. Such was the case with a story called The Millennium Miracle. I wrote in it 1999 and set it in 999 at a time (Anglo-Saxon period) when people thought the year 1000 would mark the end of the world. It was both funny and sad. I loved writing it. And my own personal ‘miracle’ was that it won top prize in a quarterly short story mag (now defunct) and then went on to win their ‘story of the year’. I’ve never since matched either the ease of writing or the staggering prize money!

C: You have worked as commissioning editor for QWF, a literary short fiction magazine for women. What are the most common errors novice short story writers make?

S: The four most common mistakes I came across were:
A great opening paragraph that made my ears prick up only to get bogged down in convoluted back-story and explanation.
Too much ‘throat-clearing’ by which I mean that the ‘real’ story didn’t begin until page three or four, which is far too late for a short story. And some were dragged out for far too long after it had really finished. I think it was Chekhov who said that when you’ve written your story, chop off the beginning and the end.
No story. A short story (indeed all fiction whatever its length) needs to incorporate cause and effect and also a moment of change, however small, either in the character(s) or the reader.
Lack of editing. Nothing is perfect the first time. And don’t just tinker when you edit. Learn to be ruthless until the very last stages when tinkering is allowed!

C: You are presently working on a new novel. Will it have the same kind of sweeping vistas as Hope Against Hope?

S: No because it’s a different type of novel. Set between 1919 and 1926 in Leeds, my characters are all coming to terms with the legacy of World War One. It’s about brothers rather than sisters although the two main characters are women; one a shop-keeper’s daughter and the other an aristocrat who becomes a Socialist and peace campaigner.  Oh dear, that sounds pretty grim but it’s not. Honest!

C: Do you have a specific writing routine or methods that help you write?

S: Not really. I am a terrible procrastinator and will do anything to avoid getting on with it. I never plan and discover my story as I write. This can make progress messy and slow but I can’t do it any other way. If I try and plan or do character biographies, it takes away that sense of discovery, which I love and makes me not want to bother because I’ve found it out before I’ve even begun. I am easily bored!  Mind you, I hate writing the first draft and that slog of getting new words down but I love editing and adding detail and texture layer by layer to the rough outline.

C: Name your top five historical novels.

S: That’s impossible to answer because I’m always reading–and not all of my favourite authors write historical fiction.  But my two favourite historical fiction authors are Philippa Gregory and Elizabeth Chadwick. I have also ‘discovered’ Christie Dickason who should, in my opinion,  be much better known. 

C: What are you reading now?

S: Perfect Lives by Polly Samson, her latest short story collection. Not historical. 

C: When you are not reading or writing, what do you do?

S: My husband has recently retired and our two sons are both grown up so I do very little apart from pottering about the house and garden. We live an a lovely part of England and I enjoy walks and village life and support my husband when he takes part in long-distance triathlons, which take us all over the country and sometimes abroad.


On Reading

I am a susceptible reader. I love books. I love that a writer has spent hundreds of hours constructing an edifice out of words, with a premise, a set-up, characters, a hook, an arc, a climax. I love that that a writer has cared so much about her book that she’s persuaded a literary agent to sign her up on the strength of those words, and that on the strength of those, a publisher has decided to put money, time and effort into printing and marketing that book. I love that readers and reviewers have read and commented on that book. It has taken on a life of its own and for that very reason, before I’ve even read it, I’m predisposed to love that book.

I’m a total fangirl of the published word. I realised this after years of attending the same book-club, when I’d hear people say ‘I didn’t care about the character, so I stopped’ or ‘It wasn’t believable, so I can’t recommend it’ or ‘it was too heavy, so I gave up’ or ‘the print was too small and my eyes grew sore’. These are all perfectly acceptable reasons to stop reading, but a part of my heart always grieves for the writer when I hear these kinds of complaints. I think ‘But the writer set out to achieve something and within the context of that goal, he did’. My tendency is always to see where the writer is going, and even if I don’t much like the subject matter, or the book is heavy or the print small or the characters hard to like, follow her to the very end. I think it’s polite.

There are a few exceptions. The first time I read Catch-22, I threw it across the room before I got halfway. It was a maturity thing; I was 17 and when I read it again in my twenties I got it. While I love crime and mysteries, I am intolerant of gratuitous violence against women. I read two PG Wodehouse, got the formula and was unable to read any more. I recently started a crime novel set in New York where the dialect was so obtuse, I couldn’t work out if the people talking were the cops or the baddies or passers-by. Unable to get the author’s set-up, I had to stop.

I sometimes think my tendency to be an empathetic reader – empathetic to the writer’s cause – makes me less of a critic. I wonder at my willingness to be subsumed in a story. I am 160 pages into Sebastian Faulks’ A Week in December. His set-up has been perfect, the characters wonderfully introduced, I suspect I see where the plot is going to take us and it is not without humour, tension or aptly-chosen sentences. In other words, he’s hooked me. I’m floating safely on the tide of words, confident that Faulks is going to lead me somewhere. I am in good hands. It’s no longer cerebral for me. It’s become visceral.

My top writing resource while I was writing Balthasar’s Gift was Martha Alderson, the Plot Whisperer. Alderson talks about the rhythm of the Universal Story. She says that ‘Stories reflect the heartbeat of the universe. Writers and readers, all of us, pulse to this universal rhythm.’ This is how I feel when I read. If the author’s set-up in the opening pages works for me, I let go of my critical faculties and allow the pulse of the story to dictate.  It is a luscious physical experience to be led in this way, and I think it does heark back to the days of sitting around the fire while an oral storyteller guided us into trance.

Part II: On reading my first e-book.

Image courtesy of hawkexpress