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Saturday, 20 October 2012

The Way We Were...

When I was writing my scenes between two longstanding friends in The Divorce Domino, it occurred to me that sometimes it’s not just the spouse you lose when marriages breakdown. Even old mates, ones you’ve known for years, can fall by the wayside because your circumstances change. Which led me to thinking about the pluses and minuses of people who met you before you’d made any decisions to affect the rest of your life.
On the upside, they knew you when bleach was just something you put on your hair, which makes flapping about with the feather duster now seem a bit too little, too late. And given that they’ve seen you in full-on, out-on-the-town gear - an old nightie, your granddad’s cardigan and a pair of monkey boots – they’re not going to throw their hands up in horror because it’s lunchtime and you’re still in your pyjamas.
They can keep up with the conversation conveyor belt without the need for an ‘I am now moving on to a different topic’ sign because they know your first dog was called Minnie (dreadful breath), their photo album is witness to your teenage penchant for sequins and glitter, they helped you dye your hair pink and blue when you were pretending to like The Clash rather than The Nolans. You don’t need to explain family quirks…they know your parents. And find it hard to break the habit of calling them Mr/Mrs (+ surname) when they meet them…very Chopper bikes and Arctic Roll. Unlike my kids’ friends who call me by my first name and treat me like a waitress in TGI Friday’s.
Undeniably, it’s very relaxing to bandy about names from the past without having to pause in the narrative to explain who fits where. You can hook the name of an old boyfriend out of the ether and on cue, they’ll do a face like they’ve just gulped milk that has gone off - ‘Not the bloke who cut his toenails on the kitchen table?’ ‘The one who ran the market stall and kept coming home with bruised apricots?’ All of which makes it easier to admit to old friends you’ve made mistakes in any area of life because, let’s face it, they’ve spent evenings in the company of the worst ones.
But here’s the rub. They knew you before you airbrushed yourself. Their view of you remains rooted in the growing up years when you saw each other on a daily basis at school or college. In my book, one of the characters wants to set up her own business, yet finds it easier to tell her new friends about her ambitions. Why? Because her best friend has her pigeonholed as a lady who lunches, doesn’t like getting her hands dirty, incapable of hard graft. Old friends find it hard to separate who we were from who we are. And sometimes don’t like it when we try to change.
Going on a diet? Scepticism greets the announcement because they’ve seen the failure of Cabbage Soup, Grapefruit, Blood Type, South Beach…Want your children to go to private school/tutor/orthodontist? Prepare to be reminded of the hours you spent selling the Socialist Worker. And if you ever dare to say you don’t drink much, brace yourself for the night of the Pernod Black/Brandy and Babycham/Tequila slammer story.
I had one friend come to stay who brought a car load of food with her, right down to the olive oil. ‘But you can’t cook.’ True, I couldn’t cook – two decades ago. Survived the whole of university on cheese and pickle sandwiches and muesli. It was a wonder I didn’t get scurvy.  But I have a family. Who need to eat. But to her, I’ll always be that person ‘who doesn’t know how to cook’.
So while I love and cherish my longstanding friends, I applaud the ones who met me as my tidier, more domesticated self and who don’t laugh until wine comes out of their noses when I tell them that the highlight of my year is getting a new pantry…

Saturday, 6 October 2012

How Middle Class Are You?

When I first wrote The Class Ceiling a couple of years ago – the story of a cleaner who inherits enough money to send her kids to private school but none to live the accompanying lifestyle – one agent said to me, ‘Why are you writing about class? No-one’s interested in class any more.’ Well. It appears that I was ahead of my time (or far enough behind to be fashionable again). Can I just whisper JK Rowling, The Casual Vacancy?
And even the jolly old Times had a lovely test to get us arguing over the breakfast table – The New Middle-Class Top 50 – How Many Can You Tick? Seven out of ten of us apparently think we fall into that category. Husband – in my mind, not nearly as posh as me - reckons he can trump my (rather paltry) 18 out of 50. Personally, I am disappointed to find that I am less than half middle class. How can that be? From the rather random list supposedly defining those sandwiched between working and upper, I was able to tick making my own chutney. What a ringing endorsement of refinement! Nigella’s cranberry. Though it does make me feel very Mother Earth and pretty smug.
Another tick in my little box for ‘I have dinner parties in the kitchen’. I don’t think that’s to do with being middle class though, more a fear of missing out. Can’t stand the shouts of laughter in the dining room while I’m nose to nose with the cheese plate in the kitchen, trying to work out whether the dog has just sniffed it or actually got a lick in. 
I absolutely love to snoop on Zoopla, another perceived sign of burgeoning bourgeoisie. Who’d have thought that the people quibbling over an extra fifty pence so the teaching assistant can have some flowers at Christmas made a hundred per cent profit when they sold their last house? And recycling. Don’t get me started. Never let it be said that a redundant grain of quinoa escapes my little green food bin. And somehow I don’t feel half as bad about chugging down vats of wine as long as those bottles are going to create nice new road surfaces.
So far, so good. But husband informs me that he is more middle class than me with a score of 19. Impossible. I see he has ticked ‘man hugs’ – the new handshake among urbane types. I’m discounting that. This is the man who puts his hand up to visiting guests - ‘I don’t do kisses’ - when they try to greet him with (very middle class) cheek kissing. I’m also ignoring his foraging claims - as in, it’s become all terribly chattering classes to go seasonal and hoover up sloes and mushrooms on autumn walks. When the kids and I are blowing cobwebs off blackberries and making a slaughterhouse out of our hands, the husband is muttering about bumblebee wee and maggots. The only thing I’ve ever known him forage for is cheese in the fridge…we always know it’s him because he never cuts it with a knife, just breaks off a great jaggedy lump. Which leads me neatly back to the cutting the nose off the Brie, the anti-Christ of the middle classes. Only in our house it’s more a chunk off the Cheddar.
So I think that takes his score back down to seventeen. Which means he’s married up, not down, though I am still trying to train myself not to say ‘settee’ or ‘lounge’ (cuttingly described by one of my posh friends as what people say when they are trying to be posh…). So, I guess that leads on to the question – does any of it matter a jot? I’m going to think about that one, but in the meantime, please do tell me if you have any class insights, I’m dying to know. Or is being too nosey a bit common?

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

The Next Big Thing

Thank you for visiting my blog today - and a big shout out to Wendy Loveday for tagging me to take part in the Next Big Thing – a chance for authors to tell you all about their works in progress. You can read about Wendy’s Fair Trade rom-com at Meanwhile, here’s a little bit about my new book.

What is the working title of your book?

The Divorce Domino

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I became fascinated by the fact that when one person in a friendship group gets divorced, everyone else starts questioning their own relationships – in a ‘What’s so bad about your marriage that couldn’t be said about mine?’ sort of way. And I also wanted to explore how the usual ebb and flow of friendship and every day conversation become suspended. It's hard for the one in the stable marriage to moan about a son's failed trumpet exam or a husband who won't pick up his socks when the devastated divorcee is staring into the abyss and wondering whether she'll have to sell the house.

What genre does your book fall under?

When I’m talking to agents I call it ‘women’s commercial fiction’ but when I’m thinking about it in my own head, I put it in the category of real life women with real life issues who are warm, funny and imperfect – the sort of people you might have as friends, who though you really love them, sometimes annoy the pants off you.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I’d need a younger Julie Walters for Octavia, my quirky, down-to-earth heroine who encourages her best friend, Roberta, to dump her bully-boy husband. (Sorry Julie…I wouldn’t cut it in the age stakes either). Plus an older Lady Mary from Downton (or a younger Maggie Smith?) for Roberta, the posh friend whose divorce triggers Octavia’s search for the one that got away. Then Gerard Butler for Xavi, my Corsican hero and Octavia’s long lost love. 

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Will one woman’s divorce blow apart her best friend’s life?

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I met a wonderful agent at the York Festival of Writing – bright, incisive and not terrifying – the sort you feel you could contact without having to walk round the kitchen saying, ‘I am a grown up’ fifty-four times before you pick up the phone.  She’s asked for the full manuscript and I am hoping that she will take me on without the need for me to beg and send crates of wine. Though if it will work, she just has to say the word and the Chateauneuf is hers. But I wouldn’t discount self-publishing.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

About six months.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

A Perfect Life by Raffaella Barker, One Day by David Nicholls

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I owe an awful lot to the University of California (UCLA) and the brilliant online Writers’ Programme – I took Introduction to Fiction about four years ago with the wonderful Jessica Barksdale Inclan and have taken many other courses since. Jessica gave me the confidence to sit down and believe I could write. Another tutor, Lynn Hightower, gave me the best piece of advice - 'This is fiction - we can skip the boring bits.' The author Adrienne Dines also picked me out at Winchester Writers’ Conference and encouraged me greatly.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

The book is partly set in Corsica so there’s a bit of armchair travel thrown in. And although it’s an unflinching look at middle-aged marriage and what happens to friendships post-divorce, the fabulous agent said she laughed out loud – so there’s a chance you’ll find it funny, even if I’m not putting you under pressure by sitting opposite you. (This is a bit of a cheat as I am adding this on the suggestion of the gorgeous Wendy Loveday who is clearly much better at marketing than me...The Divorce Domino won the Best Opening Pages competition at the York Festival of Writing 2011...the opening line was rather popular: 'I was wearing the wrong bra for sitting in a police cell.')

And the authors I am tagging are….
Jessica Barksdale Inclan – UCLA writing tutor and the author of twelve traditionally published novels, including Her Daughter's Eyes and When You Believe.

Adrienne Dines – public speaker, writing teacher and author -

Allie Spencer - romantic comedy author extraordinaire -

Monday, 1 October 2012

So…what’s your pet hate?

I find it easier to get to know my characters by understanding what they hate rather than what they like. In THE DIVORCE DOMINO, when one of my characters is choosing a new boyfriend, her deal breaker is cheap shoes - Timberlands or die. My brother would agree. The mere sight of me clumping about in my Crocs causes him to adopt a face like I’ve just stirred his tea with my big toe.  Yes, yes, I do know that Crocs are not very elegant but when the chore of the day is combing the lawn for dog poo in our oft rainy country, teetering about in high heels spearing rogue dog turds isn’t a fetching look either.
One friend I know gets all in a twiddle if the nose gets cut off the Brie – apparently the pinnacle of bad manners. Personally I think pointing it out to the holder of the offending cheese knife with the sole purpose of embarrassing them is far ruder than the slovenly cheese chopping in the first place. For me at least, the shape of the cheese comes well after people hovering in my cooking space, peering into pans and dropping eye lashes or moustache bristles in the soup. Or forking more food onto their plates before they’ve finished what was cowering there already.  Or weakly saying, ‘Can I do anything to help?’ while slopping another vat of pinot into their glass and corkscrewing their bottoms even more tightly to the chair.  But most heinous of all – and sorry, it’s always the men - glugging so much wine that they sprinkle while they tinkle, requiring the hostess to get busy with the mop on the loo floor between courses.
So when I’m deciding which pet hates to give my characters, I think about the smorgasbord of things that irritate me. In the interests of brevity, I’ll confine it to the top five but it could easily be the top fifty. Husband thinks it’s awful to be me and have a right and wrong way for everything, even down to the acceptable size of mug for my morning tea. (On balance, it’s probably more awful to be him and have to live me.)

Hit parade of hideousness…

o   Clothes bearing evidence of last night’s dinner. I read somewhere that the proof of how much you are loved is not how often someone says ‘I love you’ but how often someone says, ‘You’re not going out wearing that.’ So true.
o   People who ‘don’t mind’ but brew up a steaming passive-aggressive sulk when you fail to mind-read….
o   ‘Pacific’ when it’s nothing to do with oceans as in ‘I am looking for a pacific type of rice.’
o   Offspring who knock over pints of blackcurrant squash into my new Mac.
o   Lack of generosity of spirit. People who keep count of everything…play dates, lifts, cups of coffee, birthday presents, who phoned last…

Let me know your pet hates...can’t promise to use them in a book but I might become a better friend.