How can it be March already? Maybe there’s a mathematical formula that can explain the correlation between my own advancing years and the increasing speed with which each brand new year hurtles towards its middle age.
March is a significant month for Paper Lanterns – its formal publication date falls on 15th of March, but the copies themselves have now been delivered to Novel Press and are ready to find themselves new homes on other people’s bookshelves. Look to your right, scroll down a little bit, and you’ll see how easy it is to get your copy! I’m also hoping that some of these might land in temporary accommodation in Hong Kong bookshops, as well as some Independent booksellers in the UK.
As I’ve said below, there have been hopeful signs of interest, and a couple of days ago I was delighted to open an email from the editor of the online Lamma-zine, wanting to know where he could buy a copy of my new novel so that he or one of his team could write a review. At first I’d assumed that he must have heard about my book from my sister or one of her friends, but no, it was Google Alerts which had led him to this site. Hurray for Google!
Other March events include the latest copy of Writing Magazine, inside which, on pages 30 and 31, is an article entitled “Make your book unputdownable’” by Crysse Morrison in her regular ‘Good Practice’ slot. This series of articles is well worth reading, but that’s not all – the sub title is, “Hook your reader with a glimpse of the action and conflict to come”, and its main focus for the examples it gives is the novel, Telling Liddy, by Anne Fine, the award winning author of numerous books for children and eight for adults, and my second novel, Paper Lanterns. How’s that for company for unknown author!
I was delighted when Crysse told me that she wanted to use some quotations from Paper Lanterns for this article. There they are, under the subheading, ‘Enticing trailers’. There are three intertwined story lines in my novel, and three key dates. The main action of the book is set in the present, but both 1971 and 1930 are highly significant as well. I’d changed the opening chapters several times before I settled on a short prologue set in 1971, giving hints of what will unfold later in the book.
I gradually realised that I needed another, earlier, clue to the events of 1930, and Crysse goes on to say: “But the initial hook of this novel is an atmospheric fragment of oriental mystery from a later chapter when Ann (the main character) begins to uncover family secrets that will slowly burn away all the previous certainties of her life:
Friday 8th April, 1930, Hong Kong
“…and I had the oddest sensation – as though my soul – my very self – was a bright flame that now was shrinking, leaning away from him as from a gust of wind. And into my mind came the image of how the Chinese protect a small flame of light from being extinguished and at the same time, beautify it, with a delicate construction of coloured paper.”
A March event that I’m particularly looking forward to, and involves my new baby (Paper Lanterns, of course!) will take place in a coffee shop in the middle of Birmingham on the last Tuesday of the month. But more of that later.
I arrived back in the UK on Sunday (in spite of snow at Birmingham airport delaying my departure from Schipol airport for over three hours.) The main purpose of my short trip to Hong Kong was to visit my mother, still going strong at the age of 93. She is staying with my sister on Lamma Island, the setting for a large part of my novel Paper Lanterns.
It was mere luck that I’d taken delivery of several copies of my book two days before I was due to fly out to Hong Kong. I couldn’t waste this chance of finding a home for my new novel in some of the book shops there. (This photo of me holding copies of my book was taken by my sister, in front of the same view that I’d used for the cover of the book itself.)
I soon discovered that my timing wasn’t all that brilliant when it came to marketing: this picture of the ferry pier on Lamma might give you a clue.
Those bright red globes and the strings of coloured flags are there to mark the Chinese New Year, an event that stretches over several days, during which, most businesses shut down. Not an auspicious week for arranging meetings!
But I was lucky after all, as the organiser of the prestigious Hong Kong Literary Festival was able to make time for me last Thursday morning, two days before I was due to return home. She was interested in my brand new publishing house, Novel Press, and very encouraging about the chances of my book in Hong Kong. She gave me several useful contacts: I made a few phone calls, sent a few emails and was invited by two of the three main bookshop chains to post them a copy of Paper Lanterns.
More exciting still, was the email I received from the third company, asking if I could meet with the manager the following afternoon. This publishing business is heady stuff! I arrived at the address, a large bookshop in the bustling shopping area of Kowloon, and focussed on the table displaying books with Chinese connections, both general interest and fiction. It didn’t seem an impossible dream that copies of Paper Lanterns might soon be lying among them, face up, waiting to be lifted from the pile and taken to the till.
A few minutes later, I was following a young sales assistant out of the bookshop door, and into the office part of the building, where I was ushered into the manager’s office, a charming and efficient young woman. She was particularly interested in the real-life love letters which provided the inspiration for a central section of the novel. I’ll explain more about these letters soon.
Bookshops in the UK usually tend to accept books on a sale-or-return basis, and it would be unlikely that a store would order more than one or two copies from an unknown author. When the books in question have to delivered from the other side of the globe, returning them to the publisher wouldn’t be a viable option. You can imagine my delight when the manager indicated that they might be able to accept 20 books to begin with!
Now I have to look into the cost of freight, yet one more step on the steep learning curve I’ve been treading since the inception of Novel Press.
Back to Chinese New Year for a moment - traditionally a time for giving plants and flowers. Huge crowds flock to Victoria Park in Central to select gifts for their families and friends from the Flower Market that lasts for several days, finishing on the night of the New Year’s Eve. But as you’ll see from this picture, there are also souvenirs on sale at stalls staffed by youngsters learning to develop an understanding of business.This is the year of the tiger, hence these tiger hats. In spite of the cold wind and rain, they never stopped smiling. If only we could have bottled this enthusiasm and good will!
Character, Plot and Place – three essential ingredients for a novel. I think I’d usually say that ‘Character’ is my priority, but today, ‘Place’ is on my mind. When I come to think of it, I tend to associate people with places where I see them most often.
Right now I’m in Hong Kong (as I mentioned in my post below) – more precisely, I’m on Lamma island, where the Ann, the main character in my book, Paper Lanterns, spends a week that changes her life. So it’s not surprising that I thought about Ann’s reaction to the island when I arrived there on Thursday afternoon:
“Now she’s close enough to see the long ferry pier jutting out into the still water of the bay, and the small flat-roofed houses nestling on the slope of the hill among tall trees. And there, on the near side of the pier, a tiny collection of wooden shacks on stilts, perched above the rocks on the shoreline, and behind these, a small inlet with a cluster of little boats.”
As I emerged onto the pier myself, I thought of Ann again, “ The first thing that strikes her is the row of bicycles that straddles the top bar of the railings on each side of the long, concrete pier.”
It’s the Chinese new year this weekend, and I was delighted to see the long line of bright red , tasselled paper lanterns swaying above the bikes in the breeze. There’s an air of excitement in the narrow main street of Yung Shue Wan, but it it looks as though the weather will be cooler than expected, and is likely to rain.
Still, at least I managed to get here – there was an hour or more when I thought we’d all have to go home again, while the plane full of passengers was waiting on the tarmac at Birmingham airport for our turn with the de-icer machine to clear the wings of the inch or so of snow that had just fallen. I’d not realized how disruptive even a centimeter of snow can be, when combined with zero temperatures. At least we won’t have snow and ice here.
In case you haven’t yet seen the cover of my book, I have to tell you that the lanterns on the cover are green, not red! The book will be on sale on this site next month, but meanwhile you can find out more about it here.
I’m often asked by readers of my first published novel, The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society, where I got the inspiration for my characters from, and I answer truthfully that they are all total inventions. And then I have to add that the disguise adopted by the main character, 75 year-old Agnes, was borrowed from a feisty septuagenarian I’d met in the gym, who always wore a baseball cap over her shoulder-length frizz of ginger hair. (If you haven’t read it yet, why not boorrow it from the libary, or buy it here, via Paypal!)
Yesterday morning I was sorting out the clothes for my trip to Hong Kong next Wednesday (more of that later!) while listening to Fi Glover on Saturday Live, and I was fascinated to hear about the inspiration for the Larkin family in The Darling Buds of May.
David Dell was eight when he and his 5 siblings were taken on his first ever holiday in a bulging bright blue van. He remembers stopping at the small village shop and the rare treat of being bought ice creams, but he hadn’t noticed the man staring at them from his car across the road, as one by one they emerged from the van.
Years later, it became clear that this man was H.E. Bates himself, observing the scene with a writer’s keen eye for detail: the description of this scene in his autobiography make this far more like fact than wishful supposition.
It was an oddly weird sensation for me as a listener, hearing David Dell explain how his entire family had been caught like butterflies and preserved between the pages of a book for generations to come. It must have been amazing for him when he came across that passage in H E Bates’ autobiography.
I’m always touched by real items from decades ago, such as letters or scribbled messages on the back of postcards. Gardening Husband is a keen collector of stamps and postcards from the Far East, but he usually doesn’t bother to read those messages. However, he does know that I’m more interested in the glimpses of real lives than the potential value of a rare picture or postage stamp, so when he came across a few letters and scraps of paper among a job lot of ephemera, he handed them to me.
At that time I was in the planning stage for a novel that would be mainly set in contemporary Hong Kong, a place I have visited several times because I have a sister who lives on Lamma, one of the outlying islands, and owns a beautiful shop in Central, selling antique oriental robes and other artefacts.
After reading these letters, written by an English woman in Canton in the early 1920s, and two other love letters four years earlier from a young Chinese girl to the same man, my brain went into overdrive. I didn’t know precisely how I would use these epistolic treasures, but of one thing I was sure: a significant section of the book would take place in the 20s or early 30s and the setting would be moved from Canton, to Hong Kong.
I’ll soon be posting more about these letters and how they feature in my new novel, Paper Lanterns . Meanwhile, I’ll be interested to hear about any other real-life material that other writers have transformed into fiction.