Monday, 3 December 2007
The Russian Concubine has hit the New York Times (extended) bestseller list. Admittedly it's not yet in the Top Twenty (a hallowed position to achieve), but still well and truly there at # 34. This is every author's dream. Christmas come early.
I have printed out a copy of it and pinned it to the wall above my computer to urge me ever onwards and upwards. I know that on days when I sit at my desk in front of a blank page and wonder what on earth is going to fill the word-quota today, the sight of The List will keep me going.
The enthusiasm of readers for the book has had a profound impact on me and drives me on to want to fulfil my side of the bargain with my new book - to provide a story that touches the heart, that entertains, yet raises questions and informs. Now I am working on the sequel to The Russian Concubine and I feel pressure to satisfy each and every reader who enjoyed the original. Sometimes that pressure freezes the pen in my hand. But at others it kicks in with such force that the words flow like last weekend's rain. That's a good place to be.
So is # 34 on the New York Times bestseller list.
Friday, 23 November 2007
Yes, that's me and Helen Dunning getting friendly with a Dalek.
Well, Simon Mayo has chosen The Russian Concubine as his Book Of The Month on Radio Five Live and I was invited to go on his show with a panel of reviewers to talk about it. So off I trotted up to London again to the BBC at White City, which is where I bumped into the Tin Terror.
Simon Mayo is an icon. A radio giant. And there my book was in all its glory on Radio Five Live's homepage - just me and the football. (We won't talk about the football disaster - crashing out of Europe. Aaargh!)
On the journey I tried to prepare myself for what kind of reception The Russian Concubine would receive from this impressive panel of reviewers, though I hoped that the fact that it was Book Of The Month indicated that my judges might not be too harsh. And it turned out that I didn't actually need that calming camomile tea beforehand after all. Instead of getting dissed, I was greeted with generous comments and thoroughly enjoyed talking with Helen Dunning, Sarah Harrison and Boyd Hilton about how I'd come to write the book and its connection with my mother's White Russian history. And Simon Mayo made the whole experience of doing a live radio show a breeze. Nerves? What nerves?
Lovely Tamsin, my PR person at LittleBrown/Sphere, came along for morale boosting and did a great job. Thanks, Tamsin. As elegant and supportive as ever.
And to top it all, sitting next to me at the recording table was the Pultizer Prize winner, the brilliant American author Richard Russo. He's a real charmer and I just love his new book - The Bridge Of Sighs. Give it a try.
But only after The Russian Concubine, okay?
Wednesday, 7 November 2007
Two high points of the morning for me were:
1) A woman came to buy a copy of The Russian Concubine because she'd heard me on Palm Radio the day before talking about my mother's White Russian history. It turned out that this woman's own White Russian grandparents had also suffered tragically at the hands of the Bolsheviks. A deeply touching story that stays with me.
2) Another woman arrived to buy the book because she has the same surname - Furnivall. Not a common name. So we're going to compare notes and see if our families are connected somewhere along the line. A new cousin?
Many thanks to all those who came to the book signing to support The Russian Concubine. It made it special.
Friday, 2 November 2007
The Russian Concubine is out there.
I did in fact spot it first in WHSmiths as I arrived in Paddington Station in London. What better start to Publication Day? Their Read of the Week.
And yes, I confess, in the Charing Cross Road branch of Borders I did actually walk in and fiddle with the display, so that the lovely cover was facing outward on the shelf instead of just the spine. Well, it's The Russian Concubine's birthday, for heaven's sake, so it's the least it deserves.
Seeing it there in the shops makes me realise how much I love this book. How anxious I am for it. Like a mother on her child's first day at school, a mixture of pride and nerves and that churning feeling in the pit of the stomach. You want them to come home with five gold stars.
A book is an extension of an author, no matter how much they claim that the story is fiction and the characters are figments of an over-active imagination. Writers distil a vital part of themselves on to every page, as much into 'bad' characters as into the 'good' ones. In an odd kind of way, it's a bit like being a stripper because you have to be willing to expose so much of yourself to the gaze of total strangers. That can be daunting, but I believe it's what makes a book work, that emotional connection with the reader. It's crucial.
The LittleBrown/Sphere team gave me and my agent, Teresa, a great launch lunch party at Moro's and drowned my nerves in champagne. They are a brilliant group of people, hugely professional but at the same time tremendously supportive and great fun. I am very lucky to be working with them.
And flowers. They sent me flowers as well. What more could I ask for?
Saturday, 27 October 2007
I can't wait to be wandering down the High Street into the bookstores or pushing a trolley round the supermarkets and have The Russian Concubine jump out at me. I think the cover is beautiful - thank you, Sphere and Berkley.
Will I rush in and rearrange the displays to feature mine more prominently? I might. I know it happens! And can you blame an author, after all that blood, tantrums and tears?
Sphere have been fantastic about keeping me posted about sell-in to retailers and which magazines and newspapers will be doing reviews. (That kind of update really helps the nerves.) So far it's looking good, with the major supermarkets taking it, as well as the major booksellers. I shall definitely be rushing into the bookshop at Paddington Station when I travel up to London this week and scouring its shelves, like a mother lion seeking out her cub. I might seriously have to restrain myself from thrusting it into shoppers' hands.
Reviews. The dreaded word. That's the next hurdle to leap. I shall be reading them from behind a cushion and with a glass of Pinot in hand, like my son used to watch Dr Who - without the Pinot of course!
But there are already exciting glimmers of hope. Marie Claire has named it Book of the Month in December and WHSmith Travel has chosen it for ROTW (that's Read of the Week) this week.
What a Publication Day present that is!
Wednesday, 26 September 2007
Where did the summer go?
I was away at Duxford Air Show in Cambridgeshire only the other day, revelling in warm sunshine and Merlin engines, but today even here in Devon the north wind takes my breath away as I make my dash to the village post-box and back. It's depressing. I'm not ready for winter.
To cheer myself up I have posted a picture of me in a custard-yellow Tiger Moth biplane about to take to the skies. Huge fun.
I came dashing home from that high point determined to throw myself headlong into the new book, only to find:-
a) numerous email interviews awaiting my attention and filling up my time. I know they're essential as Publication Day in the UK approaches (1st November in case you haven't noticed) but they divert my attention away from the book (it's way too easily diverted).
b) a Buick-size rat putrefying under a cabinet - a tit-for-tat game my cat Misty is expert at to teach me not to go away.
c) a lazy summer-mind seems to have been slotted scarily into my skull to replace my writing-mind while I was on hols. Hmm, not a good way to start a book.
d) I like being home again.
e) Nowhere is more beautiful than Devon.
Okay, okay, time to pick up the pen and start writing.
Tuesday, 11 September 2007
From my editor Jackie in America. In the USA a huge store-chain called Target (1500 stores) has selected The Russian Concubine to launch its new dual Book Club. With front-of-department prominence, internet promotion and a mind-numbing 20 million circulars to get the ball rolling.
So hey, dreams do come true.
I feel honoured. For an author to have the deep satisfaction of knowing that so many people will be reading and talking about the book is profoundly rewarding. To make that connection with the minds and imaginations of so many readers is a privilege.
The Russian Concubine is about the bonds that form between people as they struggle to survive in a harsh world, and now the book itself is forging bonds. With its readers.
Thank you, Target.
Sunday, 2 September 2007
This is exciting for an author. After all the blood, sweat and damn hard grind of giving birth to a book, it is heartbreaking if it is then left to fend for itself in a vast sea of other books, all fighting for space and spotlight in the bookshops, jostling each other for the book-buyer’s attention.
That’s where the magic words ‘front-of-store’ come into play. One of the facts I’ve gleaned recently is that a huge percentage (I can’t recall exactly what the figure is but I know it’s indecently BIG) of would-be purchasers never get further than the first ten feet of the shop. Too much of a rush? Too bemused? Too bored? Too something anyway. They just grab one of the first books they see and run. Therefore, for ‘front-of-store’ read ‘gold-dust’.
So you can see why a bit of Publisher Pressure is vital. That’s where Joanne, Tamsin, Louise, Emma and their cohorts at LittleBrown come in. They are working hard to raise awareness of The Russian Concubine before its launch in November, aided by a great review in The Bookseller – the UK trade mag that can open bookshop doors.
My lunch with the LittleBrown team was hugely enjoyable – in Joe Allen’s in Covent Garden, a cool place to eat – and they weren’t scary at all, just full of enthusiasm for The Russian Concubine and its progress so far. And patient when bombarded with questions. We got through lots of good stuff and serious discussions about titles and sequels. You can see a picture of us, raising a medicinal glass of something – hmm, I notice it seems to be quite a theme of the photos on this blog!
But afterwards, instead of the dutiful hours I’d intended to spend in the British Library – seizing the opportunity for more research – I popped into its hallowed halls only briefly. Instead I was seduced into buying a new Zara jacket and going for a lovely drink with my agent, Teresa. Devon is a gorgeous place to live and I adore its sea, sand, rivers and moors galore, but it is not much good at shops. So when in London, how could I resist?
Right, that was fun-time. Now it’s work-time.
Tuesday, 28 August 2007
Too many distractions. If the sun is out, the beach is only a hop, skip and jump away and then I’m no good at staying chained to my desk, or even to a pen and paper for that matter. Which is why I’ve been so lax about posting notes here. Sorry about that.
As the sun grows hotter, I become more cunning at displacement activity. I stare blankly out of my study window seeking inspiration and suddenly spot a begonia or rose that absolutely must be dead-headed right there and then, on pain of death. But once I’m out there, that’s it. I’m done for. It’s only a short step to the woods. To the badger set. To the tennis court. To the ice-cream seller on the beach. (My special favourite: honeycomb dripping with Devon clotted cream. Mmmm.)
But today I have answered an email magazine interview, hunted out the pages on Stalin’s Five Year Plan from my mile-high pile of notes, and written a first personality sketch of one of my new characters. (When you start putting details of a character down on the page, instead of just chatting to them in your head, they suddenly acquire a stubborn life and will of their own which can be quite disconcerting.) This burst of activity is because I’m bunking off tomorrow.
Tomorrow provides me with the perfect guilt-free displacement activity. I can skive off for the whole day without a single twinge of conscience because I’m going up to London by train to meet with my lovely LittleBrown editor, Joanne. But there are Good Things and Bad Things concerning this:
a) Three travel-hours each way of uninterrupted reading for pleasure.
b) A yummy lunch.
d) Joanne’s delightful company.
e) Meeting others from LittleBrown for the first time who deal with PR, media etc (I envisage them all scarily Armani suited and with sharp haircuts).
f) Hearing lovely plans for The Russian Concubine launch in the UK – on 1st November - in case you haven’t heard.
g) Talking cover-design, blurb etc for my next book.
h) More wine.
a) Have you seen the cost of rail tickets to London???
b) Suffocating on the Underground in blistering summer heat. Nooooooo!
c) No ‘real work’ done.
d) Traipsing up and down St Martin’s Lane hunting for the model-car shop in the hope of getting my mitts on the Schuco my husband craves.
So just to make the day feel more like ‘real work’, I’m planning on a visit to the British Library to get in a couple of hours research. At least it’ll be cool in there. I’ll post the results!
Sunday, 15 July 2007
Actually I am surprised that people seem to find it so extraordinary. The answer is, of course, imagination and solid research. The world I was writing about no longer exists in China, the controlling web of International Settlements is gone, though of course the cities like Shanghai (once an International Settlement) are still there but they have changed dramatically from the 1928 versions of themselves.
I was extremely fortunate that a whole stream of books has come out of China in recent years, following Jung Chang’s wonderful Wild Swans, that gave me an intimate insight into the detail of domestic life in China, both pre and post communism. These helped enormously. I adored doing the research and found that the magic of that extraordinary vast country flowed like Yangtze floodwater under my skin. Honestly, it was easy to fall in love with the place and its people.
But then I’m a sucker for research. I admit it. I could go on burrowing in books forever and have to kick myself to say enough is enough, it’s time to get down to writing the book! It was the same with my next book – set in 1933 Russia. But more of that later.
Wednesday, 27 June 2007
Tuesday, 26 June 2007
As I zoomed from city to city (just so you know, it was London to San Francisco to Seattle to Los Angeles to Washington to Boston) I met a great bunch of people, mainly booksellers, and their wonderful warmth and enthusiasm for The Russian Concubine was so exciting, I could have travelled round the States without the aeroplanes, I was flying so high.
Check out my website’s American Tour 2007 if you want the details, but here I want to share a few impressions that stuck in my mind.
1) Booksellers in Los Angeles have to shake the sand out of their books before handing them over to customers, if their stores are near the beach. Isn’t that a great image?
2) In Seattle, the Pike Place Market. A crazy warren of stalls that sells everything (I bought two cute Classic Car models for my husband - to soothe my guilt-pangs at abandoning him for a week back in England), And its piece de resistance – the ritual of throwing the salmon. Don’t ask! Suffice to say I saw a whole (dead) salmon flying through the air as if it had grown wings.
3) Nodding Donkeys. Between LA airport and the city itself the landscape is covered in hundreds of these small oil pumps (called ‘Nodding Donkeys’) that look like it’s been colonised by the wobbly-headed plastic dogs you see on the rear shelf of a car. That is so weird.
4) Cosmo cocktails in Washington. Wicked.
5) Alaska Airways. Who is that guy whose face beams out from each plane’s tail?
6) A conversation with one of the drivers of the whisper-quiet, black-glass Town Cars that chauffeured me so courteously around the cities. The driver fancied himself as a bit of a philosopher, full of bright sayings, and when he learned I was on a book-tour for my publisher, Penguin-Berkley, he cracked a grin at me in the rear-view mirror.
Driver: So you’re enjoying the trip because you’re on opium.
Me (stunned): Pardon? Did you say ‘on opium’?
Driver: I did.
Me: Uh? (Were my eyes rolling in their sockets?)
Driver: Got you thinking, haven’t I? That’s what authors are
meant to do, think.
Me (brain addled): I give up. Why am I on opium?
Driver: (speaking slowly, as to a particularly dumb child)
O..P..M. You’re enjoying the trip because you’re on
O..P..M. That’s - Other People’s Money.
We both roared with laughter. I loved him.
7) Another driver in another city played a CD of sorrowful Russian songs to me the whole time I was in the car, laboriously translating the lyrics of each one in a strong Armenian accent.
8) Washington. A beautiful city, bursting with energy. The frustration of being in a hotel in the gorgeous Georgetown area and not having even one minute to go out to explore it.
9) Washington. A night-time drive round the city. Unforgettable.
10) Clydesdale horses and a beautiful blond Penguin representative with a passion for breeding and riding them. Have you seen these animals? They’re huge. In a photograph she looked like a butterfly perched on its broad back.
11) Amy’s table decorations with framed pictures of my mother and grandmother in pride of place. They knocked me out.
12) Standing in front of Nighthawk at an exhibition of paintings by Edward Hopper in Boston – a 20th century icon that in one picture says more than most authors in a whole book.
13) Talking and talking about my book, The Russian Concubine, without stop for a week to groups of people who are into books in a big way. Bliss!
So now it’s back home and back to work. What do I miss most from my coast-to-coast tour of America? A maid to come in each day to clean the bathroom for me!
Thursday, 14 June 2007
Some good stuff today. I heard the venues of my book-tour of America to promote The Russian Concubine – San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Washington, Boston and New York. Exciting or what? Hard work, of course, and more aeroplanes than I care to think about, but after sitting closeted in a dark room with a keyboard and screen for months, to get out there and meet some of the guys who will be selling and buying my book will be a real thrill. Informative too, to see what turns Americans on – bookwise, I mean!
Saturday, 2 June 2007
The first thing I want to say is why I’m starting this. My novel The Russian Concubine is the reason. I wrote this book about love and death and survival in an International Settlement in 1928 China, and strange things have been happening to me since.
The story of a young girl struggling to survive, who falls in love with a Chinese guy, just gripped me and wouldn’t let go. Lydia is her name. I wanted her to look at the China of that time (1928) with fresh eyes, to see its beauty and its violence (hell’s teeth, was it violent!) and to learn from it. But learning is hard. I loved writing it and fortunately for me an agent and publisher loved it too.
Why China? Good question. It’s the one I’m always asked, how I could write a book about China without going there. Or, more to the point, why? So here’s why.
My mother was a white Russian. They’re the ones – in case your history is a bit rusty – who fought against the Communists after the Revolution in 1917. My mother was two years old at the time in St Petersburg and fled with her Russian mother across Siberia (have you actually seen how enormous it is on a map?) and down into China to the city that was then called Tientsin. There they were stuck with no papers and no money – until her mother came up with the bright idea of marrying an Englishman to become ‘respectable’.
What a story. How cool is that!
I grew up in the UK, enchanted by tales of cheongsams and rickshaws, of markets with songbirds by the thousand, of snakes that slithered into bathrooms. Looking out at the dull Welsh rain when I was young, I used to dream myself into that exotic world, and all these years later writing about it came with surprising ease.
Interestingly, I couldn’t have attempted it before my mother’s death in 2000. It was as though until that moment the story still belonged to her and only after her death did it pass on to me. My inheritance, in a weird sort of way.
But hey, don’t get the wrong idea, or I’ll be in bad odour with my siblings. The setting of The Russian Concubine comes from my mother, but the actual story is totally my own. Lydia – who in the book is a thief and a liar – is a creation from my mind and is definitely not my mother. Thought I’d make that crystal clear!
Okay, sis? Happy now?