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Penguin Books launched the first blog from a mainstream publisher on Monday 31st July. Having led the way in bringing publishing into the digital age with its award-winning podcasts, Penguin's blog is a destination where an editor will post the latest news from the company: new acquisitions, sneak previews from works in progress of some of Penguin's best-loved authors, industry gossip and advice on how to get published. The blog will give readers a glimpse into the editor's office, offering insight into the day-to-day running of the company and how books are made. The first blogger will be Venetia Butterfield, Publisher of Viking, the hardback imprint which counts Will Self, Nick Hornby, Jonathan Coe, Claire Tomalin, Jeremy Paxman and Rageh Omaar amongst its authors.
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Number of Readers that added this blog to their MyJacketFlap: 160
Writing exclusively for our #PenguinCooks series, the Consider the Fork author takes us on a tour of her kitchen, and the utensils she can't do without (even if they're being used in ways you may not expect.)
Potato mashers, I find, are fairly useless for mashing potatoes. It doesn’t matter whether they are the sort that look like bent spatulas or the ones that resemble a griddle with a handle attached. Unless the potatoes have been cooked to watery oblivion – in which case the mash won’t be good, anyway – there are always some lumps that get missed. As you chase them round the pan, the potato gets overworked and turns gluey. The potato ricer is far superior. It gives you lump-free mash every time. It’s also a satisfying thing to use, as the potato falls through the metal disk in a cloud of white specks.
Yet, I somehow hang on to my potato masher, which remains in my overstuffed utensil jar alongside wooden spoons and tongs, rice paddles and strainers. Maybe it’s because, as with so much else in my kitchen, it reminds me of my mother. And, making a cake one day, I made the happy discovery that while not very effective for mashing potatoes, it is a simply brilliant device for mashing bananas.
Our kitchens teem with objects whose best use was never imagined by the manufacturers. Someone told me recently that they use a melon baller for getting the hard bit out of pear cores. My rolling pin gets used for everything from opening coconuts to bashing praline to smithereens. One of my favourite American food magazines, Cook’s Illustrated, prints endless reader’s tips along these lines. For example, use a corkscrew for a ‘safer way to pit avocado’! Or 'organise your herbs and spices in an over-the-door shoe organiser'!
Though comical, I admire the can-do spirit of these improvised techniques. In a funny way, they are true to the original spirit of inventiveness that gave us all the kitchen utensils we now depend on. When I was researching my book Consider the Fork, I started to see that even technologies as obvious as a fork for eating with or a pot for boiling, were not always with us. It took lateral thinking from the first people who adopted cooking pots to think it was worth experimenting with protecting food from the blast of the fire with clay. I like to think it’s the same sort of creative mindset that looks at a chopstick and sees the perfect tool for unjamming coffeebeans stuck in a grinder.
Charlie Parker, Penguin and foodie, explores the notion of nostalgic dishes, "vintage food" and some rather lovely old cookbooks in the second of our Penguin Cooks series. Bon appétit.
There is something to be said about the nature of a recipe.
It can become a family heirloom - passed down from generation-to-generation. Sometimes it’s an object of pride – “no-one
can make it like my grandmother makes it”. Other times an object of awe – as in
the awe experienced when attempting to make one of Adriano Zumbo’s macaron
I recently stumbled upon my Great Nan’s recipe notebook –
dog-eared and stained. It contained cuttings of classic recipes such as 'Kidney and bacon bake' and 'Lamb's tongues in cider'. This particular
heirloom, along with my Nan’s vintage Raleigh, is something I will treasure forever.
My partner also has his mum’s recipe notebook from which we
get wonderful North American classics such as pancakes and Ukrainian classics
like beet borscht. These enter the canon of our weekly cooking, and get
their own place in our recipe books (with additions and tweaks that make them
All this nostalgia got me thinking about "vintage food”: the
garishly photographed recipe books of the 60s, tattered old preserves books, old
French cooking books. All relevant again and making their way onto foodie
bookshelves and blogs in their droves, Julia Childs and Elizabeth David household names once more. I remember when I was first introduced to Julia
Childs via YouTube – “the gateway to French
soufflés and cakes” indeed - what a revelation!
The Pauper's Cookbook by Jocasta Innes, c. 1970
Here are a few blog posts that have praised some vintage recipes, taken from Penguin cookbooks. Firstly, we dip into The Pauper's Cookbook by Jocasta Innes with posts from That Lefty Food Blog (dealing mainly with soups) and The Vintage Cookbook Trials (also, incidentally, soup lovers).
Preserves for all Occasions by Alice Crang
Preserves for All Occasions by Alice Crang is another vintage favourite. As shown here by Come Step Back In Time and in a cracking chutney recipe, revived here by London Gardening Under Difficulty.
Elizabeth David's French Country Cooking
Plats du Jour or Foreign Food: A Penguin Handbook by Patience Gray and Primrose Boyd, Illustrated by David Gentleman (1958)
Make, do and mend culture translates into food – people are
pickling, canning and jamming. It seems to be less about making food last
longer and go further than about learning a new skill, but then perhaps many of
those city-dwelling cooks are saving cash by stocking up their pickle cupboards
ready for the year to come.
It probably says something about “vintage food” culture that
Penguin published the Great Food Series in 2011 – and I have to say, along with
the second hand Elizabeth David books, this collection is sitting proudly on
the shelf at home.
My next vintage recipe to try? Well it’s a classic my Nan
used to make all the time: blancmange with floating orange segments.
Charlie is Digital Marketing Manager at Penguin - you can find her blogging about food over here and quite often tweeting about food and other things over here.
The first in a series of Penguin Cooks blogs, here one of our resident food experts, Pen Vogler, tells us a little about the food featured in some of Jane Austen's earliest works.
Next year, Jane Austen’s juvenilia will be published in Penguin
Classics for the first time. It may seem odd to be trumpeting this on a food
blog, but the young writer delighted in culinary obsessions. Foremost of foodies in the juvenilia is
Charlotte Luttrell of Lesley Castle
(written when Jane was 16) who, broiling, roasting and baking her sister’s
wedding feast, is appalled to hear of the groom’s life-threatening accident;
"Good God!" (said I) "you don't say so? Why what in the name of
Heaven will become of all the Victuals?” Her sister is too afflicted to even
eat a chicken wing.
The Georgian dinner table hosted some strange dishes and I
wonder if the vile-sounding “fried Cowheel & Onion” which comes in her
lampoon, The Visit, was a riposte to
some adult attempt to make her eat it. A more acceptable treat is joked about
by the twelve-year-old Jane whose TheBeautifull Cassandra, “proceeded to a
Pastry-cooks where she devoured six ices, refused to pay for them, knocked down
the Pastry cook and walked away.”
Even I baulk at fried cow’s heel, but I have had a lovely
time cooking my way through dishes that Jane mentions in her novels and letters. As a young woman, left in charge of the
housekeeping, she writes with relish about ordering braised ox-cheek and indeed
it is gorgeous; melty and tender and just the thing for a cold day.
Braised Ox-Cheek, updated from an original recipe by Mrs Rundell, A New System of Domestic Cookery, 1806
Brought up, as she was, on meat from her
father’s livestock, ‘haricot mutton’ is another Austen favourite that deserves
to be restored to the contemporary table.
And who wouldn’t agree with her that “Good apples pies are a
considerable part of our domestic happiness”.
A Buttered Apple Tart, updated from an original recipe by Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, 1747
Pen Vogler is the editor of Penguin's Great Food series. If you enjoyed the above, read more on her blog, Pen's Great Food Club, where she describes cooking with recipes from history. For more foodie updates, follow her on Twitter / @penfrompenguin
When Graham Nash visited Penguin Towers recently, the Penguin Blog was lucky enough to sit down with him and hear, from the man himself, about the 10 songs that mean the most to him. Graham recorded this as an audio interview, but we thought we'd share it with you here so you can listen to the songs as you read.
This post is in Graham's words. We hope you like it. Happy listening.
1. The first song I’d like to talk about is Be-Bop-A-Lula by
Gene Vincent. An amazing, amazing record, recorded 2-track at Capital Records. One of the reasons I joined Capital Records personally, apart from all
the financial stuff that went on between my managers and the record company,
was that I would join if they would leave me in the studio with the original
two-track of Gene Vincent’s Be-Bop-A-Lula. It was the very first record I ever
bought and unfortunately the day after I bought it I sat on it. It was a '78 and
of course it shattered. Anyway, this is Be-Bop-A-Lula by Gene Vincent.
2. I was once talking to John Lennon about great
rock’n’roll songs. And he and I both agreed that Great Balls of Fire by Jerry
Lee Lewis was undeniably a great, great rock’n’roll song.
3. One of my personal favourite groups of course, is The
Everly Brothers. I’ll never forget what their music did to me when I was fifteen years old, I was enthralled by their sound, by
their harmony. I know they were brothers and I know they came from Kentucky but
they had this unbelievable blend. In 1992 in Toledo, Ohio, I was in my hotel
room and the phone rang. It was Phil Everly and he was talking to me. I said "Why are you talking to me in Toledo, Ohio?" And he said, “Well, you’re doing
the show at the place that we’re going to play tonight. Would you like to come
to the show?” So I went down with The Everly Brothers in their bus, to the
venue. We had that rubber chicken at 5 o'clock after soundcheck that most
rock’n’roll bands have and Don Everly looked at me and said “OK. What are you
gonna sing with us?” And you know, I’m dying inside, it’s been my dream to sing
with The Everly Brothers, and I have a cassette of me singing So Sad with The
Everly Brothers and it thrills me to this day. So let’s play So Sad.
4. After World War II when 14 and 15 year old kids had nothing to do
but kick a ball around, Lonnie Donnegan came into our lives on the BBC and
Saturday Club on Saturday Morning. He was very influential with us because he
provided a form of music that we could afford. If you had a cheap acoustic
guitar and a washboard then you could put thimbles on your fingers and
replicate the drums, and have a tea chest with a broom handle and a piece of
string for the bass, and you could actually make decent music. So let’s play Rock
Island Line by Lonnie Donegan.
5. There was a movie out when I was a kid, it was called
Blackboard Jungle. Part of the musical track was this song by Bill Haley & The Comets called Rock Around The Clock. A few days before my fifteenth
birthday, Bill Haley came to Manchester and I got tickets for me and Alan Clarke. We sat in the front row of the balcony and were absolutely blown away by
the energy of The Comets. So why don’t we play, Rock Around The Clock.
6. I’m a lover of harmony. I mean it’s very obvious – I
was in The Hollies, a great harmony band; Buffalo Springfield and The Byrds
were both great harmony bands, but The Beach Boys were something else. I truly
love this song, this is one of the finest songs on record. By The Beach Boys,
it's God Only Knows.
7. I’d like to be a little selfish here. When Stephen
Stills first played me Suite Judy Blue Eyes I couldn’t believe what a great
song it was. It was 7.5 minutes, it was in four movements; a brilliant,
8. After I joined David and Stephen I kind of put The
Hollies into the back of mind. You certainly don’t talk to your new girlfriend
about your old girlfriend, you know, you just don’t do that. And so I spent
many years kind of pushing them away in my mind. But recently, for the last 10
years I’ve been listening to The Hollies and, man, we were a fine band! Good
harmonies, great energy. I remember this particular song because we had a
manager, Michael Cohen. And he said to us one day, “I have this neighbour, this
friend of mine, and she says that her son writes songs. Do me a favour - she
keeps bugging me - why don’t you do down and just check out this kid.” So we
went to this house and there’s this fourteen or fifteen year old kid and, you know, we
were The Hollies! And we knew we were The Hollies. And I said “OK kid, what
have you got?” And he said, “I’ve got this song and it goes like this…” *sings
first lines of Bus Stop* And we knew The Hollies could cut a great record of
it. So this is Bus Stop.
9. One day [David] Crosby told me that he had just come from a
session at Abbey Road with The Beatles and they pushed two giant speakers left
and right, opposite each ear, sat him in a chair, and David Crosby was one of
the first people ever to hear this song: A Day In The Life.
always been a tenacious man. I don’t give up easily. When I’m committed to
something I do it with all my heart. This is a wonderful, wonderful song that
we should all listen to and take to heart, this is Don’t Give Up by Peter
WILD TALES by Graham Nash is out now. For more information on the book why not follow Penguin on Twitter. For updates from Graham Nash, follow him on Twitter here.
The Drugs Don’t Work by Professor Dame Sally Davies, a Penguin Special that publishes this week, is a treaty from the UK’s top doctor explaining that resistance to our current range of antibiotics is the new inconvenient truth. If we don't act now, we risk the health of our parents, our children and our grandchildren.
In this book, Chief Medical Officer Professor Davies, draws attention to this potentially devastating story. She provides a scientific overview on microbes and how they can cause human disease; she identifies the different treatment options; and she examines how the rules of evolution mean the bugs are constantly adapting to those treatments. But more importantly she explains what can be done about this global threat, which is just as important and deadly as climate change and international terrorism.
We've pulled out ten, frankly terrifying, facts from the book:
Antibiotics add, on average, 20 years to everyone's lives.
Since the manufacture of penicillin in 1943, for over 70 years we have survived extraordinary operations and life-threatening infections. The truth is that we have been abusing them: as patients; as doctors; as travellers; in our food.
No new class of antibiotic has been discovered for 26 years and the bugs are fighting back.
25,000 people a year in Europe alone are already dying of resistant bugs - killing as many people as road accidents.
1,000 different bacterial species can be found within the human intestine alone. The total weight of bacteria within the human gut can be as much as 2 kg.
In 2011, 55 million people died out of a global population of 6.9 billion. About 10 million, roughly a fifth, of these deaths were from infectious diseases. 9.5 million were from low- and middle-income countries. Put another way, 40 per cent of all deaths in low income countries were a result of infectious diseases.
The most common way for spreading bugs is by your hands: we have between 2 and 10 million bacteria between fingertip and elbow. Wash your hands.
Without urgent action being taken, by 2043 we could be dying from common infections such as a sore throat
Today, over 35 million courses of antimicrobial drugs are prescribed by family doctors in England each year. Many of these cases are falsely prescribed or demanded by patients
Antimicrobials are used in some cases to fatten livestock for slaughter, but this can contribute to drug resistance for humans.
The Drugs Don't Work is available to buy as an eBook from today. It publishes in paperback on Thursday 19th September.
Read an extract from the book in The Sunday Times here.
Bookshops – we all love ‘em. And rightly so. Ken Follet says ‘A bookshop is like a teenage party: you walk in, look around, take your time, see what you fancy…then go for it.’, while Francesca Simon, author of the Horrid Henry titles, describes bookshops as ‘the closest we get to a magic kingdom on earth. They're a world of treats waiting to be devoured.’
Jamie Oliver with his tote bag
But there are some worrying signs that the cherished bookshop is under threat. A third of the country’s bookshops have closed in 10 years, which translates to a frankly alarming statistic of one closing every week – quite understandably, 88% of book buyers are concerned about this. The Books Are My Bagcampaign aims to halt this process by celebrating the nation’s love of bookshops, calling on book lovers to show their support by visiting and purchasing a book from their favourite bookshop on Saturday 14th September (that's today folks). All publishers, including Penguin, are enthusiastically backing Books Are My Bag, and our lovely authors have also thrown their weight behind it.
For more information, do visit http://www.booksaremybag.com/ but in the meantime – have a look at some of our writers getting to grips with the campaign below.
In the final stop on Liane Moriarty's blog tour for THE HUSBAND'S SECRET, the author describes a secret of her own.
'When I was six, I had a secret. A big one. I remember the superior, impatient feeling it gave me. The way the words quivered at the back of my throat. The secret made me feel kindly and patronising towards my younger sisters. Their darling, clueless little faces. They didn’t know. But I did know. All I had to do was speak and I could change their worlds. It was exhilarating, and also excruciating.
I went to school and shared the secret with my whole class. “Just don’t tell your little brothers and sisters,” I warned my classmates. The next day my teacher phoned my mother to say there had been complaints from parents. Some kids went home in tears.
(I won’t reveal the secret here in case any gifted and talented four year olds are reading. I will say only this: it involved highly defamatory remarks relating to the identity of Santa Claus.)
I had failed my first secret. I was deeply ashamed.
It wasn’t my fault. Apparently the brain simply doesn’t like keeping secrets. Neuroscientist David Eagleman explains that secrets create a ‘neural conflict.’ One part of the brain is desperate to spill the beans. The other part wants to do the right thing.
Research has found that carrying a secret actually feels like you’re carrying a physical burden. When people confess or write down their deepest held secrets, there are measurable decreases in their stress hormone levels.
But if you write down your secret, it’s probably a good idea to then tear that piece of paper up into a thousand tiny pieces. Otherwise you might find yourself facing the same predicament I gave to my poor characters in my new novel, THE HUSBAND'S SECRET.'
Recently we paired up with Fiction Records to find out about the music people listen to when they read. Fiction also asked some of their artists to find out about the books that made them, and what they listen to when they're reading. Here's what they said...
Jamie N Commons is the first to take us through his bookish and musical obsessions:
some quiet classical selections from Claude Debussy, Anton Bruckner, Edward
Elgar, Beethoven etc. OR if
you want to combine the two, I used to listen to the 1981 BBC Audio adaption of The Lord
of The Rings constantly as a child, some really incredible music on that!"
Next up we have Nick Mulvey, who has come up with a veritable feast of music and books for your delectation. Here are his choices:
Books: 1. The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov 2. Trickster Makes This World - Lewis Hynde 3. The Big Sleep - Raymond Carver 4. Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel 5. One River - Wade Davis 6. Señor Vivo and The Coca Lords - Louis de Bernières 7. Musicophilia - Oliver Sacks 8. The Post Office - Charles Bukowski 9. The Faber Book of Science - Edited by John Carey 10. To Kill A Mocking Bird - Harper Lee
This month we're celebrating 20 years of Penguin Audio. That goes for audiobooks and music too...anything sound related. On that note, here's Tim Burgess, author of TELLING STORIES and lead singer of The Charlatans, telling us about the songs that made him.
Listen to the entire playlist on Penguin Spotify here, or click on the links and listen as you go along.
My favourite band but the songs and their hierarchy shift and swap almost daily. Definitely my favourite album. Power Corruption and Lies will always remain Number 1. This song is from that. It’s the finale – not their best known but had a profound effect on me.
One of the first 7” singles I ever bought. I took it to the local youth club and I was the only kid there with a record so I DJ’d both sides all night. My DJ style hasn’t changed a whole lot – either side could still get an outing on any given night.
Woah! The big JC. I’ve always loved his songs. I’d have loved to have told him. Has there ever been anyone so real as this guy? So open. And so honestly passionate. Yeah, he was a hellraiser too, but if you were Johnny Cash wouldn’t you want to be a little devilish? He seemed a man that fitted in in any decade. Who’d’ve thought he'd be at home covering 9 Inch Nails.
Anyone aware of me already might be thinking 'this is not teaching me much about the man behind this Spotify list' but Washington Bullets and the album Sandinista changed my life. A triple album when most couldn’t even muster up a decent single. An album heavily criticized for being a tad indulgent, I still protest that this is my favourite Clash album. At the time I was supposed to be getting to grips with dull history at school but I wanted to know who Victor Jara and Allende were. I just can’t imagine anyone recording something so political anymore.
My favourite live recording of all time. Made on a 2 track recorder, it just goes to show how brilliant the band were. Minimal recording technique, incredible playing, nothing else needed. Well maybe something else. And that brings its own problems.
Taken from the album Over You which I have released through my label OGenesis. I only release records by people I love but TU mught just change my life. Actually I think they already have – I heard them on John Kennedy’s show and it reminded me of listening to John Peel when he played an absolute gem. For 3 minutes last night, it was 1981 in my head.
RSM and ex-wife Krys O can no longer bear to have any connection with this track yet it will be in my top 3 songs forever. I was asked by R Stevie to put out a Best Of… album for him. I asked if this could be included and he welled up and told me it couldn’t. Some songs never lose their power.
The Wu blew smoke rings out of their ears n shit. Well maybe not but they made Wu Forever. It was a sprawling quadruple album of near perfect East Coast hardcore rap/hip-hop and this is the best song from it. The ramshackle nature of the band and the fact they seemed to be seconds away from destruction at any moment had so much appeal. It drove what they did.
Beautiful slow and heartfelt perfect for a slow sticky summer evening.
10. Crass - Mother Earth
Same title as the Memphis Slim song above but this one is about Myra Hindley, the Moors Murderess. I could have picked any song by this band - the first band I ever saw and the first band to blow my infant mind. I was 13 when I first fell in love with these commune living punks. I ended up friends with Penny and with Gee who did their artwork – she even did an album cover for us. Not sure I’ve ever properly told them what a profound effect they had on me.
Saw The Fall on Granada Reports. At 6.30pm. After the news. It was like watching the odd guy who lived on your street, but he was in a band. And was the most captivating thing I’d seen in years. It started a love affair with The Fall. Other nominees for this spot were Dr Bucks’ Letter, Smile, Impression of J Temperance, Lay Of The Land, Gut of the Quantifier.
I love Gram Parsons. The king of American cosmic country, but a hugely troubled dude. He was friends with The Stones and pretty much turned country music on its head - even made it fashionable. When Grams' flame burned bright country was hip. Check out Wild Horses by The Stones – we all know that it was Gram who really wrote that one. Keith’ll tell you it's true.
Factory Floor are the best group around today if your cup of tea involves aural assault, whirling cutting teeth that eat your brains. Y’know, that kind of thing. They really do get to you whether you want them to or not. This song has all that but real atmosphere within, to give you breaks between being eaten. It’s like a friendly attack on your senses.
The best, most heartbreaking lyrics ever written to a tune that milkmen whistled. I first heard it by The Stranglers but when I heard the original, it was like the most perfect song I’d ever heard. Such yearning, made public. Such toughness but so tenderly put.
The title track of an album, the first album I fell in love with when I moved to LA (I am now back living in UK). An oldie but goodie I based the Charlatans’ album Wonderland on this sound. So you could say this song was a huge influence, in some ways it shaped my band when I was living in America. It’s got a real life affirming feel to it. Instant soul.
I have to pick a Stones song. I just saw them at Glastonbury and they definitely haven’t lost whatever it was they had. They didn’t play this one but at a push it’s my favourite or, at worst a great one that doesn’t get mentioned everyday.
TELLING STORIES by Tim Burgess is out in paperback and audio now. Follow Tim on Twitter for his latest musings, and listen to the full playlist here.
Earlier this summer we ran a competition around Robert Macfarlane’s THE OLD WAYS for one lucky wayfarer to follow in his footsteps and win a summer trekking around the UK and blogging about their adventures. After a hard-fought battle, Sarah Thomas was crowned as our winner. Now that her journey is at the halfway mark, we thought we’d check in with her to see how she’s finding the experience so far (and to find out more about her adventures, visit ajourneyonfoot.com, where she’s chronicling the whole thing).
Penguin: You’re no stranger to wayfaring – what’s made this trip different from your past experiences?
Sarah: Indeed I'm not. In fact, of all the jobs I've done in my life, this has been the one that has fit me the most perfectly, as all I had to do was be myself. I suppose the key difference was having to come up with something to say almost daily on the blog. That entailed thinking about situations as potential blog posts, rather than just living them then some weeks down the line perhaps blogging about them, as I had previously done. I was much more aware of the need to document in photos, note taking etc. Sometimes it focuses your vision on a situation, and sometimes it detracts from the experience, but with practice you strike a balance. I have been open about these dilemmas on the blog, as I feel it is very much part of my experience.
I have been travelling since I was seventeen. I went on a Duke of Edinburgh trip to the Nepalese Himalaya, and broke off from the group to go to India because I was rather lovestruck by a friend who was living there. I was a naive traveller then, but it was a quick and steep learning curve, and I was so in love with the spontaneity and freedom that that kind of travel offered. Anything seemed possible, and that has been an influential turning point in my life.
Of course I didn't exactly have a standard upbringing. Born in a commuter village in Buckinghamshire, when I'd just turned 11, my dad moved us to Kenya as he'd been asked to start an office there. You'd think, knowing me now, that that would have been exciting to me, but I hated it at first. It all happened rather suddenly, and at that age you are just beginning to form a sense of self, so the upheaval was unwelcome.
Kenya was politically unstable at the time, and I watched riots from our hotel window where we lived for 2 months while finding a house. I remember one occasion when, after eating the school dinners at my new school, I got very ill. I was getting medicine at a pharmacy in downtown Nairobi when our taxi driver ran in and said, "We have to go! They're throwing tear gas outside".
Of course, that wasn't pleasant, but as time passed in Africa I began to enjoy the excitement and slight frisson of risk that was everywhere (and IS everywhere really), and the incredible kindness that is also there if you are open to it. We had the most fantastic geography field trips in primary school - caving inside volcanoes, cycling across the Rift Valley. We learned to cook on the campfire for the whole class, and were told to watch out for buffaloes when we went to pee in the night. Sadly this is such a far cry from the way the majority of children are raised nowadays.
Those experiences have made me who I am. I cannot put it better than Edward Acland, one of the characters I have featured on the Wayfarer blog, who said to me one day as I was leaving his mill, "Take risks....I could say 'Take care' but you won't learn anything by taking care".
Since then I have travelled all over the place - Africa, India, SE Asia, Europe, America - always on a shoestring, and always without much of a plan. I don't see the point in them. If you have lived in Africa for a while you come to learn they do not work out anyway. What this role has offered me is the opportunity to travel my own country in that same risk taking, spontaneous way, which I have only ever done in a van, and not for such a prolonged period. I only wish it was longer! It has been an absolute delight to get to know an old friend again, having spent a lot of my life abroad, in Kenya, travelling, and more recently living in Iceland.
What do you think you’ve gained from exploring primarily on foot? What did you come across that you wouldn’t have done if you’d been doing it the tourist-style way - driving to a specific location and walking from there?
I think the overwhelming sentiment is how connected I have felt with what is around me. When you are travelling on foot, you are not covering that much distance, relatively speaking, so the trace of your trail has the chance to be taken into somebody else's path. Somewhere down the road you meet and they say, "Oh yes, I've heard about you". Or, more abstractly, different threads of stories I have come across have the chance to come around again and cross over.
If I were travelling in any fast moving piece of metal, I would have to rely more on media rather than my physical presence, to let my tale be known. I have found it a very effective form of 'social networking' (once upon a time known as talking to people) to talk to people. I have walked around with a sign with the website and twitter handle swinging from my backpack, and been giving out business cards on mountain tops, in pubs, by streams, to whoever I meet really. Of course it is great to extend the reach of my immediate orbit through Twitter and such, but it is immensely satisfying when you actually meet those you have met on Twitter. They become part of my story and I part of theirs.
Also, of course, the silence of walking allows you to get very close to animals. On a dawn walk recently I saw hares, red deer, and a golden eagle (this is still in question but I was very close and the video zoom that I captured it with is not), not to mention the ubiquitous sheep. If you are lucky and quiet, you can dwell with them awhile, listening to the sound of their breathing, their grazing. Feeling you are sharing in part of the same matter.
Being the summer it has been, it has been an abundantly sensory experience to be on foot. The scents of the blossoms, the possibility when on welcoming terrain to take off my boots and feel the wet moss underfoot. Hearing the bees, the dragonflies, the damselflies and the clegs, go about their summer busy-ness. And this warm summer wind of my face - what pleasure!
And of course not having much of a plan and being totally open has enabled me to meet people from all manner of paths exactly because I wasn't looking for them. One thing really does lead to another, and I am at the point now where some story threads are coming full circle, with almost uncanny regularity. Knowing you are going to base yourself in a place for a while, also means you will want to get to know who and what is around there - the people as much as the trees and the mountains - so I think I am more open to striking up conversations than I might be in a regular 'tourist' situation, but I don't know, because this sort of IS the way I usually travel.
Something important that struck me when I came back to stay in a house and the radio was on, was that I hadn't listened to the news in about two weeks. I had no idea what was going on in the world apart from what I had passed through, and I was blissfully happy. The news seemed intensely negative. I'm not saying it's good to be ignorant, but I do think there's something to be said for protecting yourself from the media for a while and seeing your world for what it IS also; right there in front of you."
Any “what the hell am I doing?!” moments when everything’s seemingly gone wrong?
Not yet actually, though I am ready for it! I haven't particularly liked getting drenched through, but I ended up in a barn and getting a ride out of the situation the next day, so I can't claim to have suffered! Oh well actually, thinking about it, I suppose when I was perched at the edge of that REALLY steep slope of badly eroded scree looking for the Langdale Axe factory and someone shouted, "What are you doing? Be careful!" I thought maybe it was time to accept that the objective of that walk was something different to what I imagined. But nothing really went wrong and I know other people have managed to find it so I didn't see it as such a big deal. I just didn't like the idea of slipping at such an angle, and alone.
Anything distinctly unwayfarer-ish that you’ve found yourself missing?
Sorry if this is boring, but not at all. I find in Britain you never seem to be that far away from anything. But regardless, for me when it's out of sight, it's out of mind. If anything, I've wished to get away from things a bit more than I have. I have been very happy on this journey, and I find when you are deeply content, you don't need much else at all. You even eat much less. That said, I did tuck in to a massive steak at the Old Dungeon Ghyll, when I came down - heat exhausted - from my failed search for the Langdale Axe factory!
Walking alone vs. walking with people can be very different experiences – how have you mostly split your time and which do you mostly prefer?
I'm not sure really. I suppose I have been mostly alone and yet it doesn't feel like I have. On my initial walks around Lancaster I was joined by friends. I was joined by a friend again recently for my visit to The Quiet Site on Ullswater (one of the competition sponsors). She is equally open and spontaneous and decided to stay on to join me for what was possibly the highlight of my adventure so far - a remote valley on the East side of Ullswater where we got caught in a thunderstorm and taken in by a barrister from Newcastle who happened to have a holiday home there and let us sleep in his barn! We didn't know we were going there until we were. The Quiet Site manager had said "You can't not have ANY plan!!!". Then he told me about this valley with the oldest red deer herd in Britain. I said, "Thank you. Now I have a plan".
When walking with someone it is important that they allow me the space still to go into myself, and I am lucky to have some people in my life that do this. My husband is one of these rare friends and that is one of the many reasons I married him. But I suppose on this journey I have preferred to walk alone, then re-converge with company at camp to share tales. That is my ideal scenario. Having said that, I really enjoy travelling with my husband but he is far away!
I remember when I won the competition, my mum said "I don't want you to get lonely", to which I responded, "I'm sure I won't, but even if I did, wouldn't that just be part of it? I don't want to protect myself from it." Loneliness, or solitude, isn't necessarily a negative experience. It allows you to tune in to yourself, and your place in the world. It is alright to feel small. We are small after all. And believe me, after 2 years living pretty much on the Arctic Circle, I know all about feeling small and isolated. Though I am drawn to wild places like Iceland and the Outer Hebrides, on this journey I have noticed I have gone for places where people are working and walking the land. I am in a phase where I do want connection with people, signs of human habitation, and the occasional fair or festival. But I want connection with people who are connected to their landscapes. Humans are part of the landscape after all.
How do you think a wayfaring lifestyle or approach to the world can be adopted by people who are (for the most part) stuck living in cities?
Nobody is 'stuck' living in cities, and I think that is part of the problem with the mentality that cities impose upon you. They are closed systems that, for a large part, think of the rest of Britain as 'the countryside' to which you escape some weekends, and from where some of the produce you eat originates. I hate to make generalisations but I experienced this first hand when I lived in London for two years. There is so much going on that you can end up suddenly realising you haven't left the city for months. I think it is very important to get into natural spaces regularly to allow your mind to breathe, but you really need to build it into your life. It won't happen by itself. Even if it is just going to a park regularly and really BEING in it - not just jogging through it. That is a start.
That said, city wandering is a wonderful thing to do of an evening, or at the weekend. Living in Iceland I came across the term 'ovissaferd' which literally translates as 'an unknown journey'. This is where you just head out without any particular destination in mind, and see what happens. I think it's a particularly exciting thing to do in cities, but the openness that comes with that approach must also be nurtured, otherwise it could just feel a lot like a Red Herring! Get talking to people, unpeel the veil, notice the small things. Start by forming an apprenticeship with your neighbourhood, then take it from there.
I lived in Walworth, notorious for its estates and not particularly attractive high street. But I loved it. By approaching it as I would any other journey, I got to know the Turkish people running the local 24hr grocers, who walked me home if I felt over-laden, or unsafe, at any time of day or night. I ended up filming a lantern procession on my way home from work one winter's night for a charitable organisation, as they saw I had a video camera on me. I found a hammam in Europe's only Kazakhstani hotel along the Walworth Road. I found Roger Hiorn's stunning 'Seizure' installation, having walked past an otherwise unpromising council flat block, noticing lots of people walking around wearing wellies. And every Sunday I went to the most amazing flea market which used to be on Westmoreland Road. (In a twist of fate, Westmoreland is where I am now writing this, and wish to make my home). It had all sorts of characters, and all manner of objects from all over the world. Flea markets are the stories of the neighbourhood laid out on the street.
Really the journey is not the physical one. It is a transformation that occurs in you, and that can happen within a hundred metre radius.
What do you plan to do when you’re done? Have your travels this summer given you any inspiration for future projects or journeys?
It has been very good for me to practice writing on a regular basis and build up networks of people I am interested in, and they in me. I have really appreciated the feedback I've been getting and to be able to talk to Robert Macfarlane has been a particular privilege. It feels like taking to an old friend.
Having lived in Iceland for 2 years up until a year ago, I have a mountain of experience and story I would like to put into word, image and film, and have been slowly and steadily working on that. This project has given me the focus and clarity to really get my teeth into it though (ironically as I have not been working on it at all this summer). As they say, "The hardest part is starting". Having this time to immerse myself in Britain has given me the necessary distance I needed from my experience in Iceland to be able to make something out of it.
I have started editing a documentary I shot about a sheep farmer-poet who lives in a remote corner of Northwest Iceland, and has no family to help with the yearly sheep gathering (they roam free all summer). My Icelandic in-laws and their family used to help but they are getting old and no longer have their own sheep to gather, so it is uncertain how he will manage from now on. Every year since 1985 he has written a poem about the year's gathering and my film is structured around one he wrote which is an overview of the mishaps across the years. It is a meditation on the hardships, and the poetry, in the everyday.
As we all know, funding for the slow quiet things in life is scarce, but I hope through this project to have built up more of a network who might support and spread word of this kind of venture, and I might give crowd funding a go, as I think the small quiet voices need to be heard.
Who doesn't love moseying around bookshops? Perusing shelves packed with books, resting your weary limbs in the nearest and squishiest armchair, then leaving laden down with beautiful tomes to pore over when you get home. We're getting misty eyed at the thought of it.
Anyway, if you didn't know, today is July 4th. To many, it's Independence Day. To us, it's INDEPENDENT'S DAY (admire the subtlety of what we've done there folks. To read more about Independent Booksellers Week, head here.) We've taken a moment to praise the independent bookshop, and below are three examples of our favourites.
If you have a suggestion or would like to contribute to the blog, please tweet us or comment below. Tell us about your favourites, we want to hear about bookshops in farflung places, tiny bookshops that few people know about, or simply a bookshop you love to while away the hours in, wherever it may be.
After walking down Gloucester Road, I can’t imagine a sight more
welcome than the dusty blue of the Slightly Foxed awning. If Gloucester Road is
a cultural desert (and it is), then the Slightly Foxed Bookshop is an oasis.
Slightly Foxed published the first issue of their quarterly
literary magazine in 2003, and in 2009 they took over the Gloucester Road
bookshop. It’s an extension of the sensibilities of the magazine – they stock
an eclectic selection of new releases, and all manner of second hand books. It
feels as though they might operate nightclub style one in, one out policy –
there aren’t shelves full of the latest bestsellers, but there’s one each of
the new Pulp the Classics editions, and they sit in the window above Caitlin
Moran, a James Bond novel, and Mark Mason’s Walk
the Lines. Sure, it’s a motley crew, but one that completely makes sense.
It reads like the rest of the collection; intelligent, witty, and clearly
curated by people who love the books they stock. There’s a shelf full of
Slightly Foxed hardbacks – searingly bright wibbalin encases some great
writing. And with only 2000 of each title printed, they’re collectable as well
And downstairs! Oh, downstairs. If you’re a self-indulgent
Penguin employee (and I definitely am) it’s well worth sitting at the bottom of
the steps and looking through all the Penguin Paperbacks. Beyond that – as if
you could need more – there are shelves and shelves of second hand and antique
books – art books, biographies, travel and food writing. It’s all there, and
it’s an abundance of quality and quantity.
I spent about half an hour at Slightly Foxed, just browsing.
It was only when I left that I realised that the two people who worked there
hadn’t interrupted once – I don’t think they cared at all whether we bought anything;
they were just pleased to see people paying their books so much attention.
Slightly Foxed pitch their magazine as ‘the real reader’s
quarterly’. The Slightly Foxed Bookshop is the real reader’s bookshop.
I only recently discovered Book & Kitchen whilst
wandering around the streets just off Portobello Road one weekend. I have just
moved into a new flat there and was trying to scope out the charms of the local
area – not exactly challenging in Notting Hill, you’ll agree (yep, I’m already
a smug West Londoner).
The store has a strange but balanced composite of
aesthetics; bright contemporary colours and modishly upholstered armchairs share
space with a fully functioning vintage typewriter and record player whose
needle wobbles and crackles over an old vinyl.
The spirit and energy is immediately evident, not only from
the décor, but the staff as well. Book & Kitchen’s owner and front of
house, Muna Khogali, is super friendly and passionate about what she’s doing
and could no doubt hand sell every book in the store with her enthusiasm. Plus
she’ll also make you a coffee and a slice of cake downstairs! When was the last
time that happened when you were browsing in [name redacted for legal reasons].
That’s the ‘kitchen’ bit in the name by the way, just in case, you know, you
were thinking they also sold splash backs and graphite worktops.
What I like most is that the books are allowed to showcase
themselves. There are no shouty sales promotions or merchandising that makes
you immediately aware of the publishers (yes, I fully realise the hypocrisy
here). It is assumed that you know what you are looking for, and if not, you
are given as much time as you need to discover something new. 31
All Saints Rd, W11. Be about
A little like Joe (see above), when I first moved to the part of London I now call home, I spent (and still spend) an inordinate amount of time wandering about the place, often lost. It was on one of these adventures that I stumbled across Pages of Hackney. Attractive exterior: check. Local notices in the window: check. Wonderful assortment of books, old and new, plus small dog: check. It is a proper book shop.
If, like me, you're interested in London's history, especially the local stuff, there is so much to sink your teeth into. The history books are right in front of you when you go in, and you can find pretty much everything there. I recently bought a great little book on Blake's London by Iain Sinclair, and a copy of Craig Taylor's brilliant Londoners for a friend. There are lots of more obscure titles too, but I won't bore you with them all, you'll have to go and check the selection out yourself.
Finally, get thee to the basement (a treasure trove of vast proportions) and hats off if you can resist the lure of classic Penguin books and vintage Marvel comics. They run great events in there too. Before I descend into even more hyperbole, here's why Pages gets my vote:
1. It smells right. New and old book smell = nice.
2. It's quiet, calming and no-one bothers you if you just want to get your head down and browse (but people are friendly and suitably informed if you fancy a chat).
3. Did I mention Merlin the dog?
By Natalie Williams, Digital Marketing Executive | @natalie_rw
It would be remiss to talk about independent bookshops without mentioning the Paris institution that is Shakespeare and Company. Here's a post on our On the Strand blog from last year that you may find interesting.
Finally, for our London followers, here's a handy map to the great and good of London's independent bookstores. Enjoy, and happy Independents Day! #independentsday
Diamond Street is the second in a trilogy of books by Rachel on London streets. On Brick Lane was the first and both will be followed by a volume on Portobello Road, also to be published by Hamish Hamilton. Find out more about Rachel by visiting her site.
After receiving the
fantastic news in 2012 that my application to the Arts Council to produce a
digital app to coincide with the paperback edition of my latest book Diamond
Street: the hidden world of Hatton Garden had
been successful, I have spent the best part of a year working in collaboration
with an amazing team of experts in the digital media, film, design, literary
and historical fields to produce this new media project.
development of a digital app may at first seem like an odd choice for a non
fiction writer with absolutely no experience of or skills in this type of
medium but from the first time I heard about GPS technology being used in
locative apps, I immediately recognised what a great tool this could be for me.
I have always worked in a very multi-disciplinary way, having trained as a
sculptor before becoming a writer. My creative practise currently involves
writing of course, alongside walking, intensive archival research, photography,
audio recording, painting, site-specific art installationsand making short
films. The multi-media capabilities of a digital app seemed to offer a good way
for my readers to experience my work not just as a printed text but also
through digital space, new media and in real time.
starting this project I spent a long time imagining what a digital app could
offer that a printed book could not and how new technologies could be used not
to replace but to enhance and support a book.
wanted the app to offer new insights for my readers into both the stories in
the book and the places and people I have written about. I’m really pleased to
say that after a lot of hard work I really do believe this has been achieved.
Mainly due to the exceptional team I have been collaborating with who have made
this magic happen.
Work on the app began with paper plans, budget
discussions and meetings with Simon Poulter, Metal Culture’s digital arts
officer who was co-producer of the project. We brainstormed on my original idea:
‘to pick up on traces of the history of the place as you wandered around, with
images, audio and text being activated by geo-technology.’
We literally ripped the printed book apart and imagined these pages being
scattered around the Hatton Garden area, transformed into different digital
media, which would then beactivated as users passed by specific locations. The
idea was to develop an experimental drift through an area, rather than a
guided, chronological linear walk.
Ripping the book apart – September 2012
From paper designs
formulated during this process we developed the rough outline for a design for
both the virtual (armchair version) and the GPS on location versions of the
The next stage of the
development involved intensive meetings with Phantom Production who produced
and mixed the extraordinary sound files for the app. Phantom consist of an
amazing team of audio producers headed by the multiple-award winning sound
artist Francesca Panetta, who runs the Guardian’s audio team. Francesca was one
of the first to work on this type of GPS activated app (Soho Stories App).
Her knowledge and expertise has greatly enhanced the project and through
Francesca I was introduced to Calvium, app developers based in Bristol, worldwide
leaders in the field of GPS activated apps.
Before working on the back
end of development I spent a considerable amount of time storyboarding
the app. I found this a painful process, after five years of researching the
area and its history and a book’s worth of material gathered and more, it was
hard for me to cut this down. I eventually decided on 12 different story zones,
which take you through the story of the historic quarter of Hatton Garden, from
its time as a medieval rural monastic landscape in the Fleet Valley, to its
transformation in the nineteenth century into a jewellery quarter and the
contemporary story of the place today.
Even though I had already conducted hundreds of
hours worth of audio recordings of people who work in the Hatton Garden
jewellery trade, it was decided these needed to be re-recorded. The quality of
my recordings was just not high enough for the project. So I contacted a number
of people who had been involved in the book, from Iain Sinclair, to geologist
Diana Clements, to orthodox diamond dealers and sewer flushers and then BBC broadcaster India
Rakusen re-recorded my interviewees. These recordings were then mixed with
bespoke soundscapes and music to create 12 beautifully produced and extremely
high quality sound files, which really form the core of the GPS experience. As
you walk around with your smartphone in your pocket and your headphones
in your ears the secrets of the streets around you are revealed. Have a listen to some of the sound files we used on the Diamond Street App here.
spending a lot of time in different archives, deciding on which images to use
in the app and editing down some of the text from the book, we had all the
content ready to go. The next stage got a lot more techy! In November 2012 Simon
Poulter and I attended an intensive training day with app developers Calvium
learning how to use Calvium’s specially developed platform for GPS located apps.
collaboration with Phantom Production and Calvium we decided on location zones
and then placed the sound files and images within these zones. A period of
intensive testing ensued, with extensive notes on any issues on site (such as
leakage of sound files from one zone to another, or places where sound files
overlapped) being taken and then reported back to Calvium who made continual
adjustments to the back end of the app. There were many small problems to iron
out and a lot of testing was needed before the app was working well. Most of
the testing took place throughout the coldest winter on record and I can’t say
it was all an enjoyable experience, but hearing those stories come to life in
place as I wandered around was undeniably really exciting, a very contemporary
way of conducting pyschogeography in place.
really did jump into the deep end with this project. I had to learn a whole new
language fast, as developers and digital artists asked me questions about
‘front ends’ and ‘back ends’, ‘story zones’ and ‘location zones’. To try and
explain what I mean, below is a screen shot of the ‘back end’ of the app in
Appfurnace build (back end), showing the sound and location zones of diamondstreetapp. The diamond icons represent sound files
Alongside intensive testing
on location we began to develop the designs for the armchair version of the
app, which eventually became a swiping timeline through the stories in the
book, with embedded text, images, films and sound.
I’m delighted to say the Diamond
Street App has now been published and is available
as a free download both in the iTunes store and for the Android market. I’m
really excited about the project, which I hope has achieved its aim of giving
readers a much deeper, interactive, dynamic and live experience of the
locations, people and stories described within my printed text.
me, working for the first time with these new mediums has completely altered my
outlook on digital publishing and the potential of using new media to connect
with new readers and audiences. I’ve found the collaborative multi-media way of
working both really exciting and really challenging and whilst I’m looking
forward to some quality time alone with my computer, cracking on with my next
book, I can certainly imagine working on more digital app projects in the
Every year Penguin Group employees around the world take part in a team walk in aid of a charity of the company's choice. Lorna Broomfeld, who works for Penguin UK, tells us all about this year's event in London, as well as our supported charity the Children's Reading Fund, and the challenges presented by organising so many Penguins at once.
mere 11 short days until Penguin holds it’s sixth annual, global, charity walk.
Golly. The walk first began back in 2008, when a team
of walkers in our London office got together to raise an incredible £25,000 for
the Woodland Trust (that equates to 18,000 trees, all of which were planted by
the charity in locations across the UK) but over the last five years it has
become THE event of the year – and not just in London, but right across the
globe too - with staff clambering for the chance to puff their Penguin chests
out with pride and raise money for a very good cause (while donning extremely
fetching bright orange t-shirts). When dawn breaks on Friday 14th
June 2013, Penguins here in London will be
joined by colleagues all over the world, from Auckland and
Melbourne to New Delhi,
Beijing, Sao Paulo,
Johannesburg, New York,
Toronto and Dublin. And the best bit is that we’ll all be
united with one aim – to raise awareness of literacy and spread a love of books
and reading. How very Penguin.
This is the
fifth time that I have personally been involved in pulling the event together
and it’s still a task that I embrace
with the utmost enthusiasm. The organisation of this year’s Pride of Penguin
& DK Walk (to use its official title) has been undertaken by our small, but
perfectly formed, committee. We’ve been plugging away since February - it takes
time to pull together an event this good, y’know – coming up with everything
from the “celebration” theme (it’s about celebrating some of Penguin and DK's best authors,
characters, books and the joy of
reading); the route (our journey will take us to some of London’s hotspots –
think Trafalgar Square, Kensington Gardens, Buckingham Palace and King’s Road,
Chelsea – and to areas where some of Penguin and DK's most popular and famous
literary figures have lived, worked and visited - from Dickens to Dahl
and Peter Pan to Peppa Pig); the t-shirt design (which, this year,
features our very own walking Penguin and has been expertly designed by our
in-house designer Ben Hughes); to our charity partner (Booktrust’s Children’s
Reading Fund – which helps some of the UK's most vulnerable and disadvantaged
children develop and grow through the power of stories and reading).
Although our charity affiliations have
moved from environmental (The Woodland Trust) to human (for the past three
years literacy has become our focus – with previous partners including Room to
Read and Bookaid), we always ensure that we support a cause that is close to
our hearts. Last year, as well as raising funds to supply books to communities
that don’t otherwise have access, we made a decision to encourage a love of
reading among members of our own
community – the London public - by handing out books en route. Responses ranged from the suspicious ('Nah thanks darling') to
the delighted ('how kind of you, I've always wanted to read that'), and as the
reactions were overwhelmingly positive – just check out these delighted faces –
we’re arranging to do the same this year. Given that we’re partnering with the
Children’s Reading Fund we’re hoping to catch the imagination of children of
all ages with some fantastic titles,
from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
and Peppa Meets the Queen to RHS Wildlife Garden and Eyewitness Dinosaur.
Teaming up with the Children’s
Reading Fund has meant that we’ve had to work closely together to design
jointly branded materials and plan how
the two organisations can come together on the day to get as many people as
possible reading. While we’ll be giving away a fabulous orange Penguin bag
containing one of the books mentioned above and some Children’s Reading Fund
materials, we have also enlisted the help of two of Booktrust’s partner schools
– ST Barnabus in Pimlico and Park Walk (very aptly named!) just off Fulham Road
– whose pupils will be supplying our weary walkers with refreshments en route (for a donation to the cause, of
course – they won’t let us off lightly!). To say a mighty big thank you, we’ll
be donating a parcel of books to the school libraries and getting one of our
extremely kind authors to pay the kids a visit.
As the day
approaches, plans are coming together nicely. We’re at the stage of working out
the boring logistical arrangements - like how and when people will collect
their t-shirts and how many packets of sweets each marshall will be given to
hand out to passing walkers (obviously a pretty essential detail) – encouraging
(or mildly browbeating) colleagues to raise sponsorship; and dodging the throng
of people who are “in training”, shunning the lifts to walk the stairs to the 6th,
7th and 8th floors.
So while I go away to practice
my stair walking, bully my friends and family into donating money to the cause,
and pray to the weather gods for a sunny afternoon, I bid you farewell. But
remember, if you happen to be in Central London
on the afternoon of the 14th June, look out for the high-vis orange
Penguins, ask for a book to read to the child in your life, and spread the word
about the Children’s Reading Fund – a truly fabulous cause - at #PenguinDKwalk.
Bee Ridgway grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts.
She attended Oberlin College (B.A.), then worked for a year as an editorial
assistant at Elle magazine. She studied literature at Cornell University (M.A. and Ph.D.) and has
worked at Bryn Mawr College
since 2001. She lives in Philadelphia,
PA. The River of No Return is Bee's debut novel. It publishes today.
The River of No Return - Bee Ridgway
So yep, I’m an American. In fact, thinking
about being American is how I make my living.
I’m a professor of American literature, and I spend my days teaching Moby-Dickto young Americans. But about two years ago I sat down and
started writing The River of No Return.
It’s a big, busty time travel novel, a genre mash-up that combines
adventure, romance, spy thriller, mystery.
It’s set in Vermont, in contemporary London and in Georgian
England. Its two main characters are
British. I surprised myself: shouldn’t a scholar of American history and
literature write an American novel?
Instead, a frothy tale of time-traveling Regency aristocrats, beautiful
medieval beet farmers and faceless corporate heavies from an ominous future was
flowing from my fingers.
I had tossed my academic hat aside, my hair
had come tumbling down, and I was tapping into fantasy. And if there’s anything Americans love to
fantasize about, it’s England
(not Britain – England). Of
course you fantasize about us right back, and always have. Brits have more to say about Yanks than Yanks
do, and Americans are fiercely protective of an idealized England that no British person
would recognize. The number of times an
American has yelled at my British partner for not enjoying tea would astonish
This used to tick me off. I’ve spent years in both countries, I have a
pretty good grasp of the “real” Britain
and the “real” US, and I used to roll my eyes at the notions each nation
harbors about the other.
But that was a humorless mood. The fact is, fantasy is pleasurable and
admitting it keeps us honest and makes us more generous, in art and in
life. The fun house mirror that someone
else holds up teaches you to laugh at yourself. I am now a thoroughgoing fan of
the fictional versions of our two nations that we dream up between us. And there are always new ones. Remember that amazing Dr. Who episode where Britain
is zooming through outer space on the back of a white whale? Remember how I told you that I teach Moby-Dick? Our mutual and often absurd
fascination may not have had particularly savory effects on the world stage,
but the“special relationship” has made for some terrific popular fiction, going
back a long way.
If I may put my academic chapeau back on
for a moment, and regale you with some literary history? Some of the most archetypically “English”
writers bounced their portraits of Albion off America. Arthur Conan Doyle grew up reading American
penny dreadfuls: the first Sherlock Holmes story is largely set in Utah. Agatha Christie’s
father was American. P.G. Wodehouse spent vast portions of his adult life in America.
Frances Hodgson Burnett immigrated to the U.S. when she was sixteen. Rudyard Kipling married an American and lived
for four years – he adored it and was wildly prolific while there, writing The Jungle Bookand reams of poetry.
I’ve chosen the “popular” writers of yesteryear to make this point, because
it’s the “popular” fantasies that we swap back and forth to this day. The Hollywood
and BBC portraits of one another that we love to hate . . . and hate to love.
I’m an American, and I’ve written a fantastical novel about Britain.
My time-travelly Britain is
also – through a side window and around some corners – a portrait of America. I wrote the novel because it was incredibly
fun to do so. I enjoyed myself
thoroughly, wallowing in the alternative versions of reality that I had given
myself permission to explore. I offer it to you with a grain of salt (for
flavor), and I hope that you enjoy it, too.
Author, actress and
freelance journalist, Giovanna Fletcher is married to Tom Fletcher from McFly. She grew
up in Essex with her Italian dad Mario, mum Kim, big sister Giorgina and little
brother Mario, and spent most of her childhood talking to herself (it seems no
one wanted to listen) or reading books. Giovanna is a firm believer in the
power of magpies and positive energy. To find out more about Giovanna, view her blog or
follow her on Twitter.
Her debut novel, Billy and Me, is out this Thursday (23rd May 2013).
Anyway, over to Giovanna as she tells us about a day in her life...
Every day varies, but my writing days are a fairly consistent array of
distractions that I struggle to knock on the head before getting on with the
pressing task of writing.
I get up at a respectable eight o'clock (I'm conveniently forgetting the times
I struggle to get out of bed before ten - they’re rare!), and potter around
having breakfast with the hubby, showering, getting into a
fresh pair of PJs or comfies, and then pottering around for an hour or so. I
then like to watch the beginning of This Morning for their
quick round up of the news. Now, this can sometimes work against me as
occasionally there'll be someone being interviewed that I think will be
interesting to watch. But, let's say this is a day I prise myself away
from the telly . . .
I then go
to the office and sit at my desk in front of my laptop. First task? Checking my
Twitter, Facebook and the Mail Online (I like the pictures), and then,
before I know it, it's one o'clock and its time for lunch. Not that I've earned
the break, of course!
After lunch (usually soup in case you're wondering), I start reading what I'd
worked on the previous day to get my mind focused . . . Occasionally I feel
tired and have a nap at this point (let's blame the Italian in me - I love
a siesta), although I've tried to stop myself from doing that - grabbing a
quick cuppa is much more time effective. I'm then ready to write for the
rest of the day and late into the evening, usually getting a solid six hours
distraction-free-writing in the bag.
Yes, reading back over this, my working day is pretty disgusting really. I
promise to rid myself of a few distractions and leap over obstacles with speed
so that I can get to work a little quicker in the future . . . This is
said from my PJs while I nurse yet another cuppa. I guess with writing it's all
about finding a way that works for you and gets the creative juices flowing.
Joanna Rossiter is the author of The Sea Change (her first novel). She grew up in Dorset and studied English at Cambridge University before working as a researcher in the House of Commons and as a copy writer. In 2011 she completed an MA in Writing at Warwick University. She lives and writes in London. Last week The Sea Change was announced as one of the Richard and Judy Summer 2013 Book Club titles. Here Joanna expands on some common misconceptions about the wonderful world of writers.
The Sea Change by Joanna Rossiter
1. Being an author is glamorous.
Before I had managed to write a book, I had an
image of what an author should be in my mind that was something akin to Ewan
McGregor in Moulin Rouge; sitting down melancholically in the middle of the
night at his type writer with the Eiffel Tower outside his window and, after a
sip of absinth, typing the words ‘This is a story about love’.
In reality, novels are rarely the results of
flashes of inspiration, although they may often begin this way. I like to think
of them as a long-standing marriage; the writer weds themselves to one
particular idea and then sticks with it through thick and thin, through romance
and conflict – times when they wish they could separate and times when they
feel like they want to do nothing else but spend time together. Sometimes
writing is a lonely business – to finish a book, authors must spend days and evenings
in a room on their own filling their head with made-up people. Often, there’s
little chance for genuine feedback until the book is complete and nobody except
the writer can see the full picture until the book is written. There is a lot of hard graft and very little
glamour, but it’s worth it for the satisfaction of a well-told story.
2. Authors are full of new ideas.
It has been said that all the plots in the world
can be summarized in one of two phrases: ‘A stranger comes to town’ or ‘a hero
leaves home’. Whilst I wouldn’t go this
far, I would argue that modern day culture places a lot of emphasis on
originality when, more often than not, stories are found rather than invented.
Shakespeare wrote most of his plays from stories he had come across elsewhere;
renaissance writers recognised that the talent of a writer lies not as much in
the chosen story but in the way that story is told.
3. Authors don’t read reviews of their own
Given than my first novel only
came out last Thursday, I have had very limited experience of this! However,
already I’m finding that the desire for feedback from readers has overtaken my
fear of reading a bad review. Authors spend long spells alone with their books
in order to get them written and it’s a joy when we finally get to meet people
who have read our books and hear what they have to say about them. Every writer
writes for a reader, whether they admit it or not.
Note from the Editor: You can read Richard and Judy's reviews of The Sea Change here.
4. Authors write word-perfect first drafts.
Novels are born out of an
enduring desire to persevere with an idea until it is fully realized on the
page. I spend far more time editing than
I do writing; for me, it’s the most satisfying part of creating a book. Once
the bones of the story are on paper, it’s a great feeling to be able to start
drawing out a structure and looking for the hidden meanings in each scene. I
often don’t know exactly what a story is trying to say until I have written a
first draft; the imagery and echoes and symbols that I want to build on
only become clear when I start to edit.
5. Authors never plan their books.
Even though a lot of a story’s nuances can’t
be determined until it is written, authors still put large amounts of time and
energy into planning their novels before they put pen to paper. The level of
detail varies from author to author but I would say that it’s almost impossible
to write an engaging novel without a plan to follow. Without a preconceived
plot structure, it is difficult to convince the reader early on in the novel
that you, the author, know where the story is going and have control over its
outcome. It’s like being on a rollercoaster; for the reader it’s great fun not
knowing where the twists and turns lie but the ride can only be enjoyed if the
reader is confident that the author has built a trustworthy track for the story
6. A book can be written in a month.
Initiatives like NaNoWriMo are a wonderful tool
for helping people get started on books and cultivating the commitment required
to finish them. However, they are also misleading in the perception they create
about novels. Contrary to what they suggest, I think it’s impossible to write
anything readable in a month (others may prove me wrong!). Novels, like wine,
need time to mature. They need to be laid to rest and then picked back up again
at a later date in order to be read and edited with a fresh, objective mind.
7. Having a story to tell is the only
ingredient required to write a book.
The most common response I get when I tell
people that I’m an author is not ‘what do you write about?’; it’s actually
something along the lines of ‘I’ve got a great idea for a novel myself; I’d
turn it into a book if I had the time.’
One of the wonderful things about writing is how accessible it is:
unlike paint or a musical instrument, language is a tool that the majority of
us use on a daily basis. As a result, there is an unspoken assumption that any
one of us could write a book if we had the time. I do believe that anyone can learn to craft a
good story, just like anyone can learn a musical instrument. However, there is
a craft involved and this craft takes more than time; it takes practice. You
wouldn’t expect someone who had never played the trumpet before to pick one up
and come out with perfect jazz. Similarly, stories require skill and
perseverance and they are as much a practiced art as music or sculpture.
8. If an author’s book is good enough, it will
There can be a lot of snobbery on
the side of published authors towards unpublished authors. And yet, the fact
that a certain author is published is not just down to the quality of their
writing; as a published author myself, I would be the first to admit that at
some point along the line, there is an element of chance involved. Editors are
inundated with manuscripts on a weekly basis. My own editor is sent ten
manuscripts from new authors via literary agents every week and, out of those
manuscripts, she publishes only three or four a year. There are far more
publishable manuscripts out there than there is scope for publishing them. A whole host of factors outside of a writer’s
hands go into the decision to publish a book: from the extent to which a story
resonates with the culture of the time to its appeal to a particular audience
to whether or not it complements the other books on that publisher’s list. As
much as editors want to nurture new talent, publishing is a profit making
venture and one eye always has to be kept on the ability of a book to generate
sales. Yes, there are plenty of
manuscripts that are turned down because they are poorly written but there are
also thousands that are rejected for reasons outside of an author’s control. A
large part of me does want to believe that a good book will always find a way through
9. Authors are creative types who don’t care
about the bottom line.
We all dream of making a living from the thing
we love to do the most and authors are no different. Whilst we can convince
ourselves that it isn’t about the sales, which writer would turn down the
chance to have a bestseller? With the move into the digital space squeezing the
amount of money a writer makes from each book, it’s not a career that is
entered into for financial security. In most cases, it’s a hand-to-mouth profession
that goes alongside a series of other day jobs.
However, writers, like everybody else, will (albeit sometimes secretly)
welcome the affirmation that good sales figures bring. Popularity is not always
seen as a good thing in the literary world: literature that is valuable and
literature that is popular are often viewed as being in contention with each
other. Yet, deep down, I don’t think any
author would turn their nose up at the prospect of more readers, a higher
profile for their writing and, yes, a royalty statement that doesn’t make you
want to weep into your green tea.
10. Novels are always, in some shape or form,
All authors ‘borrow’ aspects or experiences from
their own lives when they write. In order to create compelling characters,
writers often need to be able to relate to the characters themselves and this
can mean incorporating into them certain traits that we have seen in our own
lives or in others. Whilst stories have their root in the author’s personal
experience, they often grow into something else entirely. I’m a great believer
in readers forming the meaning of a story for themselves; it’s more about the
experiences that they bring to the page than it is about the author’s. In fact,
I as a writer can often only spot the resonances of a particular novel to my
own life once I have written it and become a reader myself. A good author can
present their reader with a carefully chosen set of ingredients that complement
each other; but, more often than not, it’s the reader who decides what to
Will Hammond is commissioning editor at Viking Books, and edited Rhidian Brook's emotional wartime thriller The Aftermath, out today. He assisted Brook during the process of turning his original film script and 60-page treatment into a novel; now, the journey is set to come full circle with the news that The Aftermath is to be adapted into a film. Here he argues why the story of The Aftermath is one that needed to be told as a novel, and examines why film-makers consistently look to the publishing industry for inspiration.
One way to
measure a novel’s success is to ask whether they’ve made a film of it yet. The Third Man, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Graduate: dozens of screen classics began life as Penguin
A film adaptation is a sign that a book has made its mark in the culture. And in
some exceptional cases, such as Rhidian Brook’s The Aftermath, a film is already in the works, despite the fact
that we are only publishing it today. Is this a sign that The Aftermath has some classic quality to it? What is this love affair between films and
When these film
adaptations hit the screen, the publisher will usually see a handy boost for
their author’s book. Hence Penguin’s tie-in editions of Victor Hugo’s epic Les Miserables,
Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant
Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and
Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. Watch
out next for the tie-in edition of The
Great Gatsby alongside Baz Luhrman’s remake.
For some reason, the experience of watching a film inspires people to seek out
the novel on which it was based. If they’ve enjoyed the experience in one form,
the other form presents an opportunity to enjoy it all over again in a
different way. The book leads to a film, which in turn leads back to the book.
then, that book editors are continually scouring for news of forthcoming film
adaptations in the hope of acquiring rights in novels that have films in the
works. One particularly canny colleague of mine at Viking acquired the UK publishing
rights in two books that last year became the films Argo and Lincoln.
If push comes to shove, a publisher might even commission a novelisation of a
film, which results in good books such as John Briley’s Cry Freedom on the one hand, and far more dubious creations on the other.
It doesn’t take
a great leap of imagination to understand why book publishers greet news of
film adaptations with relish. Happy the publisher of Life of Pi when that chicken came home to roost. Indeed, it’s now
almost expected that a big book launch comes with a film-style trailer, and
some of these, such as John le Carré’s this week, have such high production
values that you might be forgiven for mistaking them for actual film trailers.
Online, meanwhile, publishers need ways to communicate their verbal or written content visually: hence the
remarkable rise of Cognitive Media, famed for their RSA animates.
interesting is that just as often, it’s the film industry who look to the book
industry to take the lead, and not the other way round. Film scouts are
continually asking book editors what’s hot so they can pick up the film rights
in a book in advance of its publication. What is it that draws the film
industry time and again to books -- even those that seem to defy adaptation,
such as Cloud Atlas? What is it that
draws film-goers, who know how the story pans out, back to the original prose?
novel that Penguin is publishing this week illustrates the situation perfectly.
The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook is set
in British-occupied Hamburg
in 1946, a city utterly razed by the Allies’ ferocious bombing campaign of
It tells the story of Colonel Lewis Morgan, whose job it is to rebuild the
devastated city, and it begins with an extraordinary choice.
At its opening,
Lewis is awaiting the arrival from England of his grieving wife and
only remaining son. Like all British officers of the time, a large house has
been requisitioned for him and his family to live in. But rather than turf out
its owners, a German widower and his teenage daughter, forcing them into
billets, he decides, in a spirit of reconciliation, that the house is big
enough for both families. He decides that they will live together – with the
brilliant premise, spring-loaded with tension, and the story that unfolds from
it is intensely involving. It was on this premise that Viking – and eighteen
other publishers around the world – entered into highly competitive auctions to
acquire the rights to Rhidian Brook’s novel. For at that point, Rhidian Brook
had written only its first 60 pages.
But he had also
written a film script, based on the same premise, which had been commissioned
by Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions and was in development with BBC Films,
with the backing of one of the major global film distributors. It goes without
saying that, at this point, there was no guarantee that the film would ever be
made. But once a deal for the novel was in place, it would take exceptional
circumstances to prevent the book from being published. The possibility of the
film no doubt played a part in publishers’ interest in the novel, but no
publisher would acquire a book purely on the basis that a film of it might be
in the works. It was the brilliant premise, conveyed in 60 brilliant pages of
prose, that had everyone convinced – not the script.
his writing career as a novelist, Rhidian Brook had long wanted to write the
story of The Aftermath as a novel.
But having turned his attention to screenwriting over the last ten years, it
was as a film script that the opportunity finally presented itself. In the
event, Rhidian Brook’s agent convinced him to put the script to one side after
a first draft, and to tell the story in the form in which he had first
conceived it – to write those fateful 60 pages. So was this a case of a publisher
acquiring rights in the book of a film? Or was it actually a case of a film
producer taking an option on a novel in progress? Which came first, the book or
The answer is
neither. What came first was that extraordinary choice: a choice that Rhidian
Brook’s own grandfather made as a British army officer when he was himself
based in Hamburg
after the war, when he decided that his family would share their home with a
German family. It was a choice that had lodged itself in Rhidian Brook’s mind
many years ago as the beginning of a story that had to be told.
Palahniuk points out in his essay ‘The Guts Effect’,
prose has a power all of its own, as he found when reading his short story
which had the alarming effect of inducing vomiting and fainting in some of his
listeners. When reading (or hearing) prose, the action takes place in our heads
– not on a screen in front of us. It’s an invasion of our minds. When reading
of Colonel Morgan’s choice in prose, we feel that we are making it ourselves.
no doubt attracted, for quite straightforward commercial reasons, to books that
are made into films. But as with all readers, perhaps what attracts film-makers
to books is the experience of inhabiting a character’s mind entirely – the
experience, in fact, of experience itself.
The Aftermath is available to buy from today in hardback and e-Book formats.
Today (April 23rd) is World Book Night, a time for readers and publishers accross the world to come together to celebrate our favourite things: books.
As well as live events in London, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Liverpool, World Book Night, along with publishers across the country, will give 20,000 volunteers half a million books to give away to members of their community who do not or are unable to regularly read.
At Penguin we're proud to have contributed two books to this year's list of 20 World Book Night titles. The first book is an enduring classic, one of the most famous adventure stories of all time...
Penguin Press editor Simon Winder says of Treasure Island:
"Within moments of starting to read it you realize that Stevenson has set out very self-consciously to write as enjoyable and gripping a book as possible, and - because Stevenson was a genius - he pulls it off. He distills the essence of every pirate tale, takes the brilliant decision to see it all through the eyes of a boy, and simply lets rip.
Parrots, doubloons, curses, shanties, castaways, a map and of course treasure pour from the story. The villains could not be more villainous (surely Blind Pew must be in any rationally managed Top Ten), the forces of good more colourless. I envy anyone who has not read Treasure Island as they have something wonderful to look forward to. But, having read it myself off and on for some forty years, I can't say that it ever gets less good."
Also as part of World Book Night, we're distributing 20,000 copies of JoJo Moyes's heart-breaking Me Before You.
Julia Bookford, World Book Night CEO, had this to say about this best-seller:
"We all read for different reasons, and those
reasons will change by the day, the time, our mood and our perception of a book
and what we expect to get from it. It could be that I enjoyed Me Before You so
much because I wasn't expecting to (based purely on my judgement of it's
cover), but I completely fell in love with it. I was intrigued, I was gripped,
I was entranced, I was educated and in the end I emerged a little bit changed
by having read it.
is, of course, a love story (but aren't all our lives to some extent?) but it's
about as far as 'girl meets boy, they go through some complications but
eventually live happily ever after' as it can get. It's about playing the hand
we were dealt, however unfair it may be and what happens if we decide we simply
don't want to play any more and about how our lives can be utterly changed by
meeting the wrong person at the wrong time. There's a good chance, if you're
that way inclined, that you might cry your eyes out at the end (I did, but
please don't let that put you off if you're not quite so sentimental!), but
whatever your emotional state I challenge you not to be a tiny bit effected by
We'll be hosting hourly book bundle giveaways on our Twitter feed all evening tonight - be sure to follow us and look out for the links from 4pm to win a selection of fantastic books. From classics to cookbooks, and erotic fiction to hot literary prospects, we've tried to cater to something for everybody, and demonstrate the breadth of delights that await you in your local library or bookstore.
So why not close your laptop, switch off your monitor, put your phone on silent, and settle down with a good book this evening?
A very happy World Book Night from all at Penguin!
It’s an odd and wonderful thing as a bibliophile to be able to work with authors and books. Getting ‘behind-the-scenes’ and helping books find their audience, as a marketer, is often about finding ways to extend your own enthusiasm and passion for a book and get the message across.
So when you get to work on a book that you like with a great author, it’s good fun – and a real privilege.
But when you work on THE book that served to remind you exactly why you work in publishing, that makes all the long hours, blood, sweat and tears utterly worth it and has the power to inspire a whole new generation of readers – there are, ironically, no words.
John Green is already an icon in American YA literature, known equally for his mastery of social media, particularly via the Vlogbrothers YouTube channel. With almost 1,000,000 subscribers and 300,000,000 video views, John and his brother Hank are living legends in the video community. This is where I found him, and then I discovered his books.
Teen and YA fiction has come a long way since I was technically the right age to read it. There wasn’t much beyond Judy Blume, Point Horror and Sweet Valley High back then, and although they were great, they’re nothing to the choice on offer now. With limited high street shelf-space and the advent of self-publishing, the genre has opened up even further, so making a mark and really resonating with readers is harder than ever.
Enter The Fault in Our Stars. You can often look back at someone’s career and clearly recognise their big break – their defining moment. It slammed onto the New York Times bestseller list at number 1 in January 2012, then stayed on the list for the entire year; selling in excess of 1 million copies in the USA and being voted as TIME magazine’s Number 1 book of 2012. This enabled John to sell out his one-off show last week at New York’s Carnegie Hall in under 48 hours.
One of the 80,000 five star ratings on Goodreads.com (and yes, I’ve trawled through most of them!) sums it up beautifully:
‘I don't think any other book has impacted me in ways which I can't even describe myself.’
And so, as John Green arrives on our shores to begin his 2013 UK and Ireland tour, I’ve got a feeling this is another defining moment.
For me personally, I’m finally meeting my favourite author, the one person growing up that I never thought I’d meet – given that the title was previously held by Jane Austen. For everyone else, welcome to the world of John Green. This is just the beginning.
On Sunday 27th January 2013, we launched the first Penguin Chat (#PenguinChats) with Margaret Stohl and Kami Garcia, authors of the fabulous Beautiful Creatures series. #PenguinChats was launched to offer the chance to get an author's undivided attention on Twitter - to ask them any burning questions you just needed to get off your chest.
The Beautiful Creatures Penguin Chat lasted 30 minutes, and so many of you participated that Margaret and Kami couldn't even answer all the questions in time! We really wanted to share some of the questions and answers for you, so we created a Storify to capture just some of the conversation.
Watch this space for more #PenguinChats coming soon - we'll annouce the latest over on the #PenguinChats blog page, so do keep checking back.
In the meantime, did you take part in the Beautiful Creatures Penguin Chat? We'd love to hear what you thought. And, if you have any suggestions for who you'd like to have a Penguin Chat with, let us know in the comments below.
To celebrate Valentine's Day, this week we held a poll to find the nation's favourite Penguin love story, asking our Facebook fans and Twitter followers to vote for their favourite from a shortlist of ten of our most enduring romantic classics.
After much discussion and in-fighting among the Austen aficionados, Bronte-botherers and Hardy die-hards, the results are in:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Austen's romantic comedy-of-manners will top pretty much any book list it is eligible for; and so it proved here, winning the vote in the end at a canter with a 24% share. The perennial favourite was perhaps still fresh in the public's imaginations after the recent 200th anniversary celebrations.
There was little to separate the Bronte sisters however, with just six votes to separate Charlotte's Jane Eyre (18%) and Emily's Wuthering Heights (15%). F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby was by far the most popular non-English title on the list, also garnering 15% of the vote.
To celebrate the results of the poll we're offering a Valentine's Day 50% discount on Pride and Prejudice at Penguin.co.uk - to claim your discount, simply enter the coupon code 'Love' when prompted.
Jennifer McVeigh's debut novel The Fever Tree, the epic tale of a British woman embarking on a new life in nineteenth-century southern Africa, has been critically acclaimed and selected for Richard and Judy's Book Club in March. Here, she discussses he inspiration for the book and reveals her top five favourite stories set in Africa.
People always ask me – so what inspired you to write The Fever Tree? And of course there are lots of answers: the Victorian diary on which the story is loosely based, the landscape of southern Africa, my fascination with a character – a girl who cannot recognize love until it is too late. But there is a different answer; one I have talked about less.
I grew up as a tomboy, happier making blood brothers in the woods than painting my nails scarlet. I longed for adventure – real adventure, and spent my weekends camped in an old army tent in the garden, where the dawn light filtered through holes in the canvas (were they bullet holes or cigarette burns?). When I was twelve my dreams came true - my father took me to East Africa on safari.
We rode horses for ten days across the Masai Mara, camping at night under a sky glittering with stars, listening to the low grunts of a lion carry far across the grasslands. We galloped with herds of zebra, clouds blackening into storm. The plains lit up underneath to an iridescent gold, and I remember thinking as the horse pounded beneath me that there could never be anywhere in the world as beautiful as this. We chased ostrich, and – on a hot day – stripped the saddles off our sweat soaked horses and pushed them deep into a lake until their feet left the ground and they were straining and blowing, and it felt as though we were flying. I fell madly in love with the simplicity of the life and the exhilarating dangers of the bush.
One afternoon towards the end of the trip I felt acutely light headed. An hour later I was in the grip of a high fever. I remember the local hospital – a small, flat concrete block with the toilets ankle high in urine and water, and a man with a muddy looking bowl of instruments submerged in water who pricked my finger with one of them and took a blood sample. Malaria they said. There were no planes available to fly me to Nairobi hospital and by the time my father managed to charter one I was hanging on by a thread.
I recovered in Nairobi but the trip left me changed. The exhilaration, the adventure, the vast, remoteness of the landscape, and – at the end – the terrible sickness, had a profound effect on me, and these experiences lie at the heart of The Fever Tree.
Jennifer McVeigh's Top 5 Africa Stories
“In the biggest, brownest, muddiest river in Africa…” The Enormous
Crocodile waded into my four year old life with a terrifying snap of his jaws
and a reckless disdain for morality as I knew it. He wasn’t just eating
children because he was hungry. He was eating them because it was fun.
And I was thrilled. So began a lifelong love of the wild spaces and wild
creatures of Africa.
It was Jock of the Bushveld – the most famous dog in South Africa –
who brought this wilderness to life. Has there ever been a more loveable,
loyal companion? My childhood hero – Jock, the runt of the litter, who was
almost drowned at birth in a bucket of water – grows up to be the bravest
dog on the veld. His adventures opened up to me the landscape of Africa –
the lives of transport riders travelling across the great plains, the hidden
dangers of the bush, the nights huddled around the camp fire, the roar of the
lion, the open skies, the early mornings and the bush teeming with game.
Later, came Out of Africa, the story of my teenage dreams. ‘I had a
farm in Africa.’ I couldn’t speak the words out loud, I so desperately wanted
them to be true. My father had taken me on safari in Kenya. We had ridden
horses across the rift valley, galloping alongside zebra and ostrich, and
camped out under the stars at night. I was in love. Karen Blixen – God how I
envied her. I wanted to buy a farm at the foot of the Ngong Hills; to lie in
bed at night listening to the rain drumming on the earth outside; to ride out
with a herd of cattle many hundreds of miles across the bush to meet my
husband, fighting a war with Germany. And most of all I wanted a white
hunter who would take me on ‘safari’, just the two of us, for months at a
It wasn’t until I went to Oxford that I engaged with Africa as a real
place, and began to learn a little of her history.Heart of Darkness
opened my eyes. Here were Europeans in spotless white suits, and Africans
in chain gangs. The dream was tainted. Africa was not a place about which
one could spin fantasies. There was something terrible and degenerate at the
heart of the European experience which Blixen and Hemmingway had
omitted. And I felt ashamed and a little foolish for ever having wanted a
farm at the foot of the Ngong Hills.
At last, when I had spent some time in various African countries,
humbled but still enamoured, I began reading A Grain of Wheat. Ngugi wa
Thiong’o’s story of Kenya’s fight for independence was, and remains, one
the most arresting and beautifully crafted novels I have read. It showed me a
different side of Africa. I learnt a little of what life was like for black
Kenyans living under British rule, and – for the first time – I was reading an
African novel which wasn’t from an imperial, European perspective. The
difference was radical.
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Doris Kearns Goodwin has loved history all her life. She has
focused her career on the lives and stories of presidents past: Lyndon B.
Johnson, John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and presently
Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
For four decades, she has lived with dead presidents. She
wakes up with them in the morning, and thinks about them when she goes to bed
at night. She has imagined them in their youth, in the White House, with their
families and friends. She has spent significant time thinking about how their
voices sound, the cadence of their speech, their posture and stride. She has
sought to understand the inner person behind the public figure. For her, this
study brings the presidents to life and allows us to learn from their past
successes and struggles. Through her writing, she hopes readers will feel like
they, too, know these presidents in a new and intimate way.
A: I knew that they couldn’t deal with the whole book. The only
way to make the story come alive in a feature film was to make a story within a
story. So Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner decided to focus on Lincoln’s tumultuous
final four months in office, the ending of slavery with the passage of the 13th
amendment, and the Union victory in the Civil War. The only way to
tell the whole story is through a miniseries. Maybe that will be next!
Q: This is the first of your books
to be made into a feature film. How does that feel?
A: Seeing all the actors in their costumes, the
cinematographer, the lighting people, the technicians and dozens of people
working on the set, and knowing that somehow this book helped to inspire
Spielberg’s team to create an entire world is very exciting.
Q: And what thoughts did you have upon arriving
in Richmond and visiting the sets as Lincoln’s world was
coming to life in this old pinball factory?
A: What Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner have
been able to do so masterfully is tell a big, historical story in such an
intimate way. It’s an up-close and very personal, detailed look at the life Lincoln led and the
people closest to him during this most important time. For the 10 years I spent
writing Team of Rivals, everyday I
imagined the world Lincoln inhabited.The loving fidelity the filmmakers paid to
recreate his life, his world, is astonishing. I felt magically transported back
in time to the 1860s.
Q: One of the
most important locations in the film is Lincoln’s
office, which was essentially the center of the Lincoln White House. Was it
comforting or unsettling to be in that room that you must have imagined time
and time again.
A: As I
walked in the Lincoln
office, I had a sense that I was really there. I could see him there, sitting
in his chair, picking up his pen. It was so much like what I had imagined while
I was writing my book, that I could almost smell the cigar smoke lingering in
the draperies! It was an extraordinary experience to see the attention to
details: from the genuine Belter piece to theold maps on the wall and the
portrait of President Andrew Jackson.
Q: Lincoln’s desk is a
beautiful and important piece of furniture. Set designer Jim Erickson said he
added all those cubbyholes for authenticity. Please tell us about the particular
meaning the desk holds.
A: I suppose it’s
because Lincoln’s office is at the heart of the movie.He would sometimes
write little fragments of his speeches and tuck them away in the drawers and cubbyholes. People thought he wrote his speeches at the
last minute, but he had thought about themes and sentences for weeks. The desk
drawer is also where he would put his hot letters, the letters he would write
in a moment of anger or frustration. He would not send the letters, but would
wait for his emotions to settle. Especially near to me are the first-edition
books atop the desk; books that he would have read at the time – The Poetical
Works of John Milton and The Bigelow Papers.
Q: The attention to detail, as you mentioned, is
extraordinary. How do those details impact or enhance the storytelling?
A: The research that went into replicating the
furniture, the gas lighting, carpeting, and wallpapers is exceptional. I loved
hearing about how they found a place in England to hand-weave the carpet and in
Richmond to make the wallpaper using silk screening. But yet, even with the beautiful sets and
furniture, costumes and linens, clocks, candelabras, china and crystal, and
books, bringing Lincoln to life is the most important
thing in the whole movie. Obviously, the story matters and the 13th Amendment,
but people adore this man Lincoln and he fascinates them. And if you can better
create him through his surroundings and the people who mattered, then all of
that makes a profound difference.
tell us, what did you ultimately think of Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as
Daniel Day-Lewis has brought this iconic figure to life in a way that I could
not envision before seeing his performance on the big screen. I was told that
when he arrived to start filming, he completely embodied Lincoln – and didn’t
break character. His performance was remarkable in every way - from the way he
looked to his posture and gait. His storytelling ability, and way his face lit
up with those sparkling eyes, to that voice that could carry throughout the
land were spellbinding.
you see the movie, there is something so particular about his posture and the
way in which he walks. How would you describe it?
Lincoln at 6-feet-4-inches tall had this singular way of walking, which gave
the impression that his long, gaunt frame needed oiling. He seemed toplod
forward in a slightly awkward manner, his hands hanging at his sides or folded
behind his back. His step had no spring; he lifted his whole foot at once
rather than lifting from the toes and then he would thrust his foot down on the
ground rather than landing on his heel.
us about Lincoln’s voice. There had been some online chatter that people were critical
of the high pitch.
voice was thin and high pitched, but I think you’ll see in this movie that his
voice also had tremendous range. In his day, Lincoln’s voice had much carrying
power, allowing it to be heard from the far reaches of the crowd. He would also
become increasingly impassioned as he spoke, gesturing with his head and body
rather than with his hands. His speaking went to the heart because it came from
the heart. Lincoln’s eloquence was of the higher type, which produced conviction
in others because of the conviction he possessed.
Q: When he speaks, it seems to me his
face changes dramatically. Do you agree?
A: Yes, when Lincoln would begin to
speak, his expression of sorrow dropped immediately. His face lit up with a
winning smile – a genuine, deep and knowing smile. It was through his words and
his facial expressions that one could know his keen intelligence and genuine
kindness of heart.
me what surprised you most in your own research of Lincoln and how is that
demonstrated in the movie?
vitality of the man, the magnetism of his personality, and the life-affirming
sense of humor were much greater than I had realized. His sense of humor was one of the ways in which he combatted his own melancholy. Those who
knew Lincoln described him as a very funny man. Lincoln himself recognized that
humor was an essential aspect of his temperament. He laughed, he explained, so
he did not weep. He saw laughter as the joyous, universal evergreen of life.
His stories were intended to whistle off sadness.
Q: You have mentioned that Lincoln’s
storytelling was key to his personal and professional success. Can you tell us
how it helped him and brought him closer to the people of histime?
A: He had hundreds of stories that he could
all on at any time. The stories often had a point relevant to the moment, but
sometimes were just hilarious. His humor would today rival that of Stephen
Colbert and Jon Stewart. I think he could have matched them one for one.
There’s a moment when somebody says to him, "Lincoln, you're
two-faced." And he looks right back, he said, "If I had two faces, do
you think I'd be wearing this face?" So many people say that he couldn't
possibly be elected in today’s time. But I disagree. With his strength of
conviction, with his humor, with his intelligence, with his lovability, our
country would really be in trouble if we couldn't elect him today.
Q: At the core of your book and presumably
this movie, is Abraham Lincoln’s political genius.
A: Both movie and the book focuson the
political genius of this man at a time when we're so distrustful of
politicians. The movie demonstrates that it takescompromise, attention to
detail, willingness to bargain and masterful timing to get something done, but
the system can work. And that's an important lesson for today.
Q: What is it about Lincoln that continues to
interest and excite people generations later?
A: People feel a deep emotional attachment
to Lincoln than perhaps any other president. In part, it is his life story, the
trail of losses and failures before he reached the presidency. And
of course, the soaring words that have been studied and memorized by
generations of students.
Q. What do you hope
readers will take away from your book and the movie?
A. I would like people to
realize that in the hands of a truly great politician the qualities we normally
associate with decency and morality—honesty, sensitivity, compassion and
empathy—can also be great political resources.
Jennifer McVeigh's debut novel The Fever Tree, the
epic tale of a British woman embarking on a new life in
nineteenth-century southern Africa, has been critically acclaimed and selected for Richard and Judy's Book Club in March. Here, she reveals her 10 Tips on How to Stay Sane as a Debut Novelist.
Don’t quit your job before you have a book deal. Very sensible advice that I spectacularly failed to follow. I left my job as a literary agent and stepped into the terrifying world of no salary, no professional support and no real hope of achieving what I was setting out to achieve. It was a very rocky ride.
Do join a writing group – they will keep you sane, help you to stay on track, and remind you that there are other people in the world crazy enough to be battling all day with words on paper.
Don’t divulge your plot, or writing problems for that matter, to friends at dinner – they’ll say very unhelpful things like: Isn’t that a bit predictable? How can you not know what’s going to happen at the end? And – most gruelling of all - hasn’t Wilbur Smith written a novel just like that?
When you’re writing sex scenes, don’t imagine your parents looking over your shoulder – a passionate kiss will quickly disintegrate into a prudish peck on the cheek.
Don’t obsess over the perfection of other novels. Read them, learn from them, but don’t let them cast your own into shadow. I always wanted my protagonist to be as dynamic and real as Cathy or Emma, but it wasn’t until I had reached the end of her story that I felt I really knew her.
Don’t let yourself imagine all the unpublished authors in the world being turned down by agents, like the millions of lost souls waiting at the gates of heaven. If you have written something good, then someone will spot it – you just need to have faith and determination.
Don’t be your own judge. After I had written my novel I shelved it in despair, convinced that it was worthless. It was only by some stroke of luck – a chance meeting with a literary agent – that I was convinced to send it out into the world. Thank goodness I did.
Don’t demonise the agents who reject you. More than likely your manuscript fell into the hands of some poor, unpaid 17 year old intern with a hangover, desperately trying to reduce the size of the slush pile. Wait a few months, and send it in again. I was offered representation by an agent who must have afterwards let my manuscript fall into the slush pile. A month later I received an earnest typed letter from the agency: “Dear Miss McVeigh, many thanks for sending in your manuscript. I’m very sorry to inform you that…”
Once you are published - in the interests of sanity – try not to check your Amazon sales rank more than twice (OK – that’s not realistic – perhaps 5 times) a day. If sales are good your publisher will tell you, and a shift from 3050 to 2095 is almost certainly meaningless.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because you’ve got one novel behind you, the second will be easier. It won’t. Sweating over a novel is part of what makes it brilliant. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. I do have a very frustrating writer friend who keeps telling me that her second novel is a breeze…
Rosie Project was originally a screenplay. What’s the story there?
always wanted to write a novel, but didn’t think I had the ability. When, at
50, I made a mid-life career change, I decided to enrol in a screenwriting
program rather than creative (prose) writing. I had previously written a
screenplay for a feature-length film made purely for fun, so I thought I could
do that. So The Rosie Project was my
school project over five years. Two factors drove me to adapt it into a novel:
the first was that with a story in place, I thought the jump to writing a novel
was not so great so I could achieve that ambition; the second was to get more
attention for the script to help fund the making of the film.
difficult was it to adapt it as a novel?
found the “reverse adaptation” very straightforward. In fact, I realised that
the story was perhaps better told as a novel. I was able to work quite quickly
– the first draft took only four weeks. I already had a clear plot, characters
and dialogue. The big addition was Don’s inner world – his thoughts. Although
these were not on the page in the screenplay, they were very clear in my mind,
so quite easy to add. They are, in the novel, an important source of comedy. In
a film, you can generate comedy from physical movement and expressions and from
timing – these tools are not really available to the novelist. So in the novel,
the main source of comedy moves from the external world to what’s happening in
you do a lot of research on Asperger’s Syndrome or Autism?
did read a couple of technical books and a couple of memoirs but their
influence on the character of Don Tillman was minimal. My first degree was in
physics – lots of science and maths! Then I worked for many years in
information technology and also taught and did research at several
universities. So I met many people who were technically very capable and often
had “left field” ideas, but who struggled with understanding and communicating
with other people. I guess today, many of these (mainly male) guys would be
diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, but that diagnosis really only became
popular in the 1990s.
Don Tillman based on anyone in particular?
say a character is a third someone you know, a third yourself and a third made
up. A particular friend, an information technology guru, had a dramatic
true-life story around his quite-focused “Wife Project” and this was the
original inspiration for the script. Initially I channelled his voice, but Don
soon took on its own character. I was also a bit of a nerd in my youth, and a
bit beyond. And I added in mannerisms and stories from others – “greetings” and
“I’m in human sponge mode” come from colleagues.
do you feel about using autism / Asperger’s as a source of humour?
is a person with big strengths (high intelligence) and weaknesses (poor social
skills). I see him as atypical rather than disabled. Most stories, drama or
comedy, require the hero to overcome a weakness to achieve their goal. Comedy
arises when the hero is seriously under-equipped for the journey. And sometimes
Don’s view of the world makes more sense than ours. So far, the novel has been
very well received by people with Asperger’s, their families and organisations.
Many have commented that they appreciate the socially-challenged person being
the hero and the person we identify with rather than someone for the real hero
to learn from (as in, for example, Rain Man). No doubt there will be other views
but if the book prompts discussion, all the better.
Don actually have Asperger’s? You never say he does in the book.
was a very deliberate decision. As soon as you say “Asperger’s” or “Autism”,
people, in my experience, focus on the syndrome rather than the character. Don
is not a bunch of symptoms – he’s a quirky guy who probably would be diagnosed
as being on the Autism spectrum – but I don’t claim to be an expert. The
citation for the Victorian Premier’s Award said Don had “undiagnosed Asperger’s”
and I say “undiagnosed except by the judges of a literary award.” If,
reading The Rosie Project, you note
that Don drinks alcohol, and you think (as one psychiatrist friend did) that
“aspies don’t drink”, then, in your diagnosis, he doesn’t have Asperger’s. Fair
enough. Read on.
did the Rosie character come from?
original story was titled The Klara
Project, and Klara was a nerdy Hungarian studying for her PhD in physics.
There was a plot around plagiarism and Don helping her out. About 2 ½ years
into the project, I decided that Klara wasn’t a strong-enough character – she
didn’t require such a big change and effort from Don. And he didn’t learn as
much as I wanted him to. So I replaced her with the antithesis of what Don was
looking for – to see how far he could go. I didn’t consciously base her on
anyone but there are elements of a couple of people I know in there.
you ever met anyone like Gene? I mean, really? At a university?
happened to the screenplay?
have had firm offers from production companies in UK,
Australia and the US.
I’m very confident we will do a deal and have every hope that the film will be
would you like to play Don?
don’t answer this question, because it puts an idea, and not always a good one,
of what Don is like in the heads of people who read the book. One of the joys
of reading is to use your imagination. But I want the film to be laugh-out-loud
funny – genuine comedy. So the most important factor is the comedic chemistry
amongst Don, Rosie and the director.
there be a sequel?
am working on one now.
wife writes erotic fiction. How does that work?
writes under the name Simone Sinna – and is currently working on a mainstream
novel. We work well together – we discuss story ideas, review each other’s
work, and know that if the other person is on a roll, it’s our turn to make
dinner. Or order in.
does it feel having rights for The
Rosie Project sold in 35 countries?
great that people in such a range of cultures – from China
- can relate to the story and particularly to Don. On the financial side, I’ve
been able to give up my day job to focus on writing.
was your day job? What exactly is data modelling?
was an information technology specialist focusing on data modelling, which is
basically specifying how data will be organised and represented in a database.
I wrote a couple of books on the subject – one is entering its fourth edition.
In the 80s I founded a consultancy that I sold in 1999 – and after that I
focused on teaching data modeling and consulting skills around the world. I met
quite a few people like Don.
advice would you give to writers?
written a few things about this on my blog, but basically I work with a plan,
which I update as I go. If you’re writing well without a plan, I’m not going to
suggest you change, but if writing without a plan isn’t working for you…
And good writing is re-writing. You can always make it better. Enrol in a
writing class or join a writers group or both – for feedback, knowledge sharing
and encouragement. Write for publication.
do you think The Rosie Project
compares with The Big Bang Theory
/ The Curious Incident of the Dog in
the Night Time / One Day?
haven’t seen / read any of them. Deliberately. Once I realised I was working in
the same territory, I avoided reading them so as not to be hamstrung by
worrying about copying. Sometimes different writers just end up at the same
place, coincidentally or because some things are just common to certain types
of people. Of course now people thrust Asperger’s-themed books at me to
do you read?
much fiction when I’m writing. In the past I read a lot – typically taking an
author and reading all of his / her works until I got exhausted – when I was in
teens / early 20s Hemingway, Camus, Solzhenitsyn, Kurt Vonnegut… later
Philip Roth, John Irving, Joanne Harris, Rose Tremain, John Fowles.
an adolescent, I read science fiction – lots and lots of it. The most recent
books I’ve read were Addition by Toni
Jordan (a book Rosie has been compared with) and Waiting for the Barbarians by J M Coetzee.
books influenced The Rosie Project?
years ago (I’d have been in my teens) I read a 1950s book that was a huge hit
– They’re a Weird Mob by Nino Culotta
(John O’Grady). It was the model of a humorous book, first person, about
a fish out of water, an Italian in Australia. I never consciously drew
from it, but in retrospect it probably provided the first model for Rosie. I like
John Irving’s ability to create character and plot that seem just a bit
heightened – but never actually incredible.
is a bit of a foodie – and a wine buff. Where did that come from?
I like to cook, eat and drink. I do a lot of travelling – in the past
with seminars, now with the book – and an interest in food and wine fits well
with travel. And I was keen to give Don some characteristics that were
not traditionally associated with Asperger’s.