Tuesday, 24 November 2015

My Name on an Acorn

Jeong Goam’s unique viewpoint on calligraphy, engraving and modern art

Naju is a city located in the lower corner of South Korea in the South Jeolla Province on the Yeongsan River. It’s a small and unassuming city, with its own provincial university, and the Yeongsan is a small and unassuming river only 80 miles long that has its source in the region’s hills, flowing gently from there to the Yellow Sea.

Jeong Goam took his initial inspiration from the small-scale geography of the region to execute his minimalist carvings and miniature engravings. Born Jeong Byung-rye, he grew up in poverty. Taken from his mother by his father’s family, he was forced into factory work from an early age to support his stepmother after his father died. Eventually he came to realise that his mother had been his father’s concubine; he met her again at the age of ten for a single afternoon, but has not seen her since.

Now, at 66, he looks back on his life as a journey, a voyage of self-discovery. With no formal training and no money for proper tools or equipment, he took to carving Chinese characters as well as pictorial engravings onto small blocks of stone or wood in the manner of seal-carvers of Korea’s more ancient times. His first creation was an acorn on which he engraved his own name. It got him into trouble. His teachers refused to believe he had produced the carving himself, it was simply too good. They accused him of passing off adults’ work as his own and he was beaten.

Jeong Byung-rye’s subject matter reflected the world around him—the world he saw, rather than the world he was taught to see. His bond lay with the countryside—in particular with Wolchulsan, a rocky outcrop of mountain that

overlooks his native city. The southern regions of Korea take their weather from the sea, and the mountain reflects the four seasons in its own way, inspiring a bucolic simplicity in Jeong’s work. But in the shadow of the mountain and its rural environs was the city and its people, so his art reflects a mixture of nature and the built environment, yet still carries the primitive linearity into which he retreated as a child when the world became too overbearing. Jeong’s views on the world and his outlook on life remained untempered by formal education. Those who beat him physically would not beat him into conformity. He was emboldened by this; liberated rather than restricted. In the Confucian artistic tradition, he took the honorific Goam in homage to the method of his work. Goam style was a way of producing works of art that possessed a unique texture—a texture centered on the encounter of a knife with a surface. Goam Jeong Byung-rye became widely known as Goam Jeong. He worked with natural substances such as wood or stone, describing this as a harsh but enjoyable process, one in which he approached each new task as if he were “writing a love letter”. Of his work, he says this: “If you want something very natural, you should hide most completely; you should show only what you are supposed to show. You should always be careful about the difference between freedom and license, and you should control dynamics and tempo.”

That difference between freedom and license informed his early work, which reflected a mixture of local landscapes and the freedom people had to walk across them, leaving trails with their footprints, trails with vehicles, trails in water that became a later part of his engravings. His experiments with Chinese calligraphy were soon overtaken by the idea of working in Korea’s own script—Hangul. This script was more representative of his own life and background than Chinese writing, and he was able to begin producing examples of his work in local scripts. He was seen as an artist who upheld the values of his own time, an egalitarian who represented his own work rather than aspiring to a lifestyle and culture he knew little about. Soon his contemporaries began to see him as a pioneer, popularising the tradition of goam engraving and bringing it into the world of contemporary art.

In Korea, the art world took to him. From 1992, he was offered lectureships, working up to a position as professor at the Department of Environmental Design at South Korea’s Far East University. By 1993 he had been elected to the board of the selection committee for the Seoul National Gallery. While his academic career went from strength to strength, he illustrated textbooks for all levels of education in Korea and was commissioned to produce pieces for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and for Hillary Clinton, as well as making personal gifts for two Korean presidents and Nobel Prize laureate Kofi Annan. He has written books of his own over the years, too, including Goam Injon (1989), Life, Beautiful Faces (2000), the Sound of a Wind Chime (2001) and Can't Stop Myself (2006). Later he produced engravings for exhibition at the Beijing Olympics and was commissioned to construct an animation for the Olympic coverage of Seoul’s MBC television company.

Over the course of his career, Jeong Goam has produced over 10,000 pieces of art, always by hand, never using digital reproductive techniques. He has enjoyed 25 solo exhibitions and has taken part in more than 150 group shows. The authorities at Jeju International University in Korea have recently concluded an agreement with him. They plan to open a gallery and an institute to study the Goam style under his personal auspices, and will be opening their admission books to postgraduate students from January 2016. For an artist who grew up in a small province in Southern Korea, an artist who never allowed his viewpoint to waver, ploughing his own furrow through the trained world of art, his achievements are beyond measure. In 2016 he plans to share that vision for the first time with the western world, holding exhibitions in Paris and London.

Yet he remains firmly in touch with his origins. He describes his memories of playing in the hills of his childhood, in the fields and by the rivers. His works pursue a natural world filled with peace and reflection, properties that are beginning to vanish from the world at large. Speaking of his work, he admits: “I don’t know the limits, because I’m not well-educated. I had little schooling. I would never have started this kind of work if I had an advanced degree from a prestigious university.” Now, as the head of the new institute, he asks his students not to compare him with academics or famous people. He believes that a person who succeeds in finding his own world—as he himself has done—will have nothing to envy. “Everybody is busy using up their energy while envying and being jealous of others. But I don’t know how to do that.”

He enjoys watching documentaries on nature for inspiration. His works pursue rural life and encourage deep reflection and meditation. “The blank space has a tranquility which makes us feel the limitless energy of the whole universe. The blank space holds something spiritual.” To a western view, this statement appears insightful; to an artist from eastern Asia, it is little more than a clichĂ©. If there’s one thing Jeong’s work avoids, it’s pretention. His style—a juxtaposition of the primitivism of cave painting and something almost tribal—leaves no room for such readings.

So what can the western world take from Jeong Goam? Simplicity, primarily, a rendering of complexity in a simple engraving; the idea of time passing, perhaps, or of history. Certainly we can admire the thought, consideration and effort that has gone into the production of what appears at first sight a multiplicity of roughly carved images, blank seals that could if necessary be used and reused. The nature of Wolchul Mountain made flesh, the motherland symbolising the lost mother, rock symbolising human obduracy, human strength. Or perhaps, in his elegant simplicity, Jeong Goam has spent his artistic career carving his name onto an acorn.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Guy Saville - in conversation with JD Smith

Guy Saville is the author of The Afrika Reich, an international bestseller. Born in 1973, Saville studied literature at London University. He has lived in South America and North Africa and is currently based in the UK. His latest novel, The Madagaskar Plan, was released in September 2015.

Welcome to Words with JAM. Could you tell us a bit about your new novel, The Madagaskar Plan …

It’s great to be here! The Madagaskar Plan is an alternative history thriller where the Nazis won the war and conquered Africa. There has been no Holocaust; instead the entire Jewish population of Europe has been deported to Madagascar (a huge, remote island off the east coast of Africa). This set-up is based on real Nazi plans and is the background for an epic tale of love, revenge and survival.

I always have a favourite scene once I’ve finished a book. One I’m proud of. Do you have a favourite scene and why?

My favourite scene is towards the end of the book and too ‘spoilerific’ to share here. However, there’s one earlier in the book that springs to mind, what I refer to as the ‘tent scene’. Outside the rain lashes the canvas; the interior is dry and warmed by paraffin lamps. It is the setting for an unlikely duel of wits. There’s something very evocative about the scene and I love the details in it: the mirrors hanging from the roof casting a hypnotic light, the smell of freshly roasted chicken, the scratch of a fountain pen on paper. (Anyone who’s read the book will know the scene.) For all the action in my books, it’s these quiet, intimate moments I often enjoy the most.

And do you have a favourite character?

That’s sort of like asking if you have a favourite child! I admire Burton, the hero, for his single-mindedness; and Madeleine, the main female character, for her toughness and determination to survive. I also can’t help but like the villains: they’re ghastly but with an undeniable charisma. And I always make sure the supporting characters are memorable (this is especially important if they only feature briefly). In short, I can’t write any character unless there’s something that draws me to them.

Afrika Reich was a huge success. Did you feel pressure to write a second book that was equal to if not better than the first?

Once you’ve had a success in publishing there’s a lot of pressure to do the same thing again. When I sat down to write The Madagaskar Plan I had two objectives: 1) to write something different 2) to write something better. So, yes, I did feel the pressure... but it was more of my own making.

It’s been a long time since the publication of your first book. Did you find the second harder to write than the first?

Yes. With the first book, I mapped out the entire plot from beginning to end before I began writing (a process that took nine months). With the follow-up I had a deadline to meet, so I didn’t have the luxury of this planning stage. It caused me a huge amount of problems because I was writing without knowing where I was going. I know some writers thrive on this, but it brought me to a grinding halt as I literally lost the plot. Eventually, things got so bad I had to negotiate a new deadline, then plan the whole book from beginning to end before I started writing again. Madagaskar has a more complex, interweaving structure than the original so this map was invaluable. After that things were easier.

The other challenge was making it stand-alone. I had to assume readers weren’t familiar with the first book (or because of the gap between books had read the first one a long time ago and wouldn’t remember all the details.) The trick was to include enough information so people understood the world and backstory without having to re-tell the entire plot of the original. The initial reaction from readers suggests I pulled it off.

Historical novels inherently come with huge amounts of research. How did you go about tackling that and did you enjoy it?

I always think of research as mining: a process of starting at the surface, then going deeper and deeper to find precious nuggets. I start with generalist texts, then follow their footnotes and bibliographies to the next strata of books and papers, then repeat the process through to academic publications and finally the original archive material. I think I overdid it with Madagaskar because by the end I probably had enough to write a non-fiction book. A lot of that material had to be discarded for the sake of the narrative. There’s an element of drudgery to the research process – but also exhilaration when I stumble on a fact or detail that’s a gem.

Which authors inspire you and why?

Among contemporary writers, Robert Harris and Sarah Waters as they’re able to combine cracking stories with a brilliant attention to historical detail. I also admire the earthiness of William Boyd and his humour.

Do you have a favourite place where you like to write?

I have a log cabin at home which is my office and the main place I write. It’s at the end of my garden and surrounded by fields so very peaceful. I have a big desk, a comfy armchair for reading, and shelves and shelves of books – so it is the perfect place to be creative. I feel very lucky.

As an historical novelist, how do you feel about the recent destruction of ancient ruins in Palmyra?

I’ve travelled widely in Syria and have visited Palmyra. It was an amazing, atmospheric experience and one I treasure. So watching Palmyra’s destruction on the news has been particularly painful; it feels personal. I appreciate that ancient sites fall into ruin or are destroyed by natural events but to see the place so wilfully and nihilistically destroyed is a tragedy.

Would you ever consider writing in the present or about an historical event without it being alternate history?

There’s one more Afrika book – but I’m not by inclination a writer of alternative histories. It’s more just a coincidence. So yes, I do plan to write books set in the present and based around real events without any deviation from history. Indeed, one of the books I’m currently pitching to my publisher is set in the near future. In years to come, looking back at my output, the alternative history of the Afrika books will seem the exception rather than the rule.

And lastly, favourite pizza topping?

I was hoping you’d ask a serious question! ‘Padana’: goat’s cheese, caramelised onions, red onions and spinach. Pizza Express does a particularly good one if anyone wants to take me out for lunch...

Want to win a signed, hardback copy of The Madagaskar Plan? We have a US and UK copy to give away. To enter, simply fill in the form here.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Jungle Books

By Catriona Troth

On a piece of waste ground outside Calais, rapidly turning into a sea of mud in the autumn rains, is a tent city of refugees from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan. Many of them are highly educated people whose studies have been curtailed by war. Others are children who are desperate to go to school.

In the middle of this, lie a couple of brightly decorated tents which house Livres de la Jungle -  the Jungle Library.

The founder of the Jungle Library is Mary Jones. Originally from Wales, Jones now teaches in Amiens, some 160km from Calais.

“Ever since the previous centre at Sangatte closed, I’ve been keeping an eye on things here. I knew I wanted to do something, but I kept telling myself I was just too far away. But then I thought, ‘just go.’ Perhaps I could offer English lessons.”

She spent a lot of time just sitting and watching, trying to understand what the needs really were.

“I knew the reason a lot of them wanted to get to England was in order to study. I thought maybe I could get books from people like the Open University. But I knew reading should also be for pleasure.”

She began by clearing out her own bookshelves, and the library grew from there. Livres de la Jungle
was set up in a couple of tents. After an article appeared in the Guardian, they were flooded with books, especially novels.

"It's lovely. But what is really needed can be quite specific. There are different groups of users. Some are highly educated and desperate to continue their studies. They can be looking for books about chemistry or engineering, say. Others want very basic books to help them learn – not just English, but French too. And then there are the children.”

There are simple practical needs too. A generator to provide electricity. A lock on the door. Warmth. Jones set up a crowd-funder (now closed) in order to address some of those needs and to deflect people from spending money on expensive postage for books.

“A photographer provided us with some laptops, which were already loaded with the language teaching software, Rosetta Stone. We have no security, and when they first appeared, a few of them walked out of the tent. But then a few days later, they walked back in again.”

She would love to be able to provide decent WiFi, which the refugees could use to speak to their families via Skype, or to access free online courses such as MOOCs.

“My ambition is for this be a warm space where people can come and just have a few minutes of normality. “

One group supporting the Jungle Library is Exiled Writers Ink. They are going to be in the Jungle Library performance space one day during the week of 5th October. Exiled and refugee spoken word poets and prose writers will perform their work in the languages of the refugees. They have put out an appeal specifically for books in Arabic, Tigrinea, Amharic, Dari, Pashto, Farsi and Somali, to be brought to the Exiled Lit Cafe night at 22 Betterton Street, London WC2 9BX, on 5th October, having first contacted jennifer@exiledwriters.fsnet.co.uk..

The day I interviewed Jones, two other things happened. Firstly, another of her great supporters, the Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green London, brought over a delivery of donated books. Secondly, French police choose to bulldoze a small encampment of Syrians who are outside the Jungle.

“They had built themselves a little community by on old warehouse and garden,” Jones tells me. “I don’t think their relationship with the neighbouring houses was that great. I had bought them a generator, but they told me they didn’t dare use it because it would make too much noise.

“They were already traumatised, by what they had left behind, and what they had been through to get here. And one of their group had recently been electrocuted. And now they’ve lost everything, all over again.”

Simon Key from the Big Green Bookshop witnessed the aftermath.

“The people in the camp are in an impossible situation,” he wrote on Twitter. “It was horrible to see how they were treated.”

The Big Green Bookshop has raised almost £3k for the library. It began as a local appeal, after Key read about the library in the Guardian. Then their appeal was mentioned in the Telegraph and picked up on BBC News, and the whole thing spiralled. At one point they were receiving twenty parcels a day with books to take to Calais.  As a final flourish, they had a mammoth sale of second hand books. Then on 21st September, they drove over to Calais with the donated books.

That morning police in Calais blocked all the entrances to the Jungle and they were redirected to a massive warehouse. They described seeing people picking through the rubble of 300 smashed up tents, looking for their stuff. "Everyone came to help," Key told me. "The camaraderie was incredible."

“The people here are so friendly & positive, despite all that's happened," he wrote, when they arrived in the Jungle.  "Their attitude is inspiring."

And their books did make it through to the library, as Jones confirmed to me a couple of days later.

"I don't want this to be a one off." Key told me. "I have been contacting other indie bookshops, so we can make this a regular thing. We want to ensure the library always has fresh supply of books."

At the end of our interview, I asked Jones what her greatest hope is. I was thinking about her greatest hope for the library, but characteristically, her vision was much broader.

“My greatest hope is for these lovely people to be able to live a normal family life. To build a home somewhere that isn’t on a rubbish dump. To be safe and secure.”

If you would like to help the Calais Jungle Library, PLEASE DO NOT JUST SEND BOOKS. They have set up a Facebook page, and they will be using that to let people know about specific requirements for help.

If you have connections with any of these things:

  • Materials for teaching either English OR French as a foreign language
  • Academic books, especially science, maths and engineering
  • Books in the languages of the main groups at the camp (Arabic, Tigrinea, Amharic, Dari, Pashto, Farsi and Somali)
  • Dictionaries from those languages into English and/or French 
again, DO NOT SEND THEM DIRECTLY, but please contact Mary Jones (maryjones[at]orange[dot]fr ) and ask how best you can help.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

60 Seconds with Siobhan Daiko

Siobhan Daiko was born and spent her childhood in colonial Hong Kong. She has worked in the City of London, once ran a post office/B&B in Herefordshire, and, more recently, taught Modern Foreign Languages in a Welsh comprehensive school. Siobhan now lives with her husband and two cats in the Veneto region of Northern Italy, where she spends her time writing, researching historical characters, and enjoying the dolce vita. Her books to date are Lady of Asolo, The Orchid Tree, and Veronica Courtesan. Her new release, The Submission of Theodora, comes out on 27th October, 2015.

Tell us a little about you and your writing.
I’m really honoured you’ve asked me. Writing wasn’t something that I’ve always done, unlike most other writers I know. Yet I’ve always been creative. My father was an artist and encouraged me to paint when I was a child. I loved it, but I was also a linguist, and that’s the direction my life initially took. My passion for writing only started when the empty-nest syndrome kicked in. My son had left for university and an old friend had become a published author. Naively, I thought I could become one too. So I wrote a novel about a school-teacher in Wales (I was a school-teacher in Wales at the time). I thought it would be the next Bridget Jones. Ha! I did complete it, but my heart wasn’t in the story and I hadn’t found my voice. Instead, there other stories in my head, clamouring to be told, and I’ve hit my stride writing them, I hope.

 What’s the best thing about being a writer?
I love the journey of completing a novel, discovering where the characters will take me. The end is always set in stone, but getting there is absolute magic.

 And the worst?
Marketing. It’s the downside of ‘being a writer’ when I’d much rather just write. That said, I’m learning more about promotion with each book I publish and now I have the help of a wonderful lady, Tracy Smith Comerford.

Why historical fiction?
The idea for The Orchid Tree, my debut novel, came to me while I was researching my grandparents’ experiences in the notorious Stanley Civilian Internment Camp in Hong Kong during World War II, and the first part of the novel is set there. To lighten the darkness of the subject matter, I focused on two very different fictional romances. History was one of my favourite subjects at school, and I’ve always been fascinated by it. Whenever I visit a historic location, I lose myself in daydreaming about what it would have been like to have lived there in the past. Lady of Asolo, a time-slip historical romance set in the area where I now live in northern Italy, is inspired by a location steeped in history. And I love reading historical fiction, of course.

If you could see your latest novel turned into a Hollywood film, who would you like to see play the lead roles?
Funnily enough, there has already been a Hollywood film, Dangerous Beauty, made about the main character in my latest book, Veronica COURTESAN. The role of Veronica was played by Catherine McCormack and Rufus Sewell interpreted the part of her lover, Marco. I thought the sets in the movie were beautiful, but I would change the leading actors to Scarlett Johansson, for her beauty and intelligence, and Aiden Turner for … (need I go on?). It would have to be x rated, though, as Veronica is my first foray into erotica.

Do you have a special writing place?

Yes, I do. I write in what was my father’s studio. I like to think he would approve of me carrying on the creative tradition here. Sadly, he died before he could fulfil his dream of painting in this place during his retirement. It’s a beautiful spot, set on a hillside in the foothills of the Dolomites. I love it.

You live in Italy now which must influence your writing. Is location important in your books?

Italy definitely influenced Lady of Asolo and Veronica. Location is a vital part of my writing process. My next erotic romance will be released on 27th October 2015: The Submission of Theodora, set in 6th Century Constantinople. I researched the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the setting before I started writing the story.
Which 3 writers do you most admire and why?
That is such a difficult question! There are hundreds. So I’m going to choose writers of the past who still resonate with me today. In first place: Shakespeare. Quite simply the best for his characters and use of language. Second place: Jane Austen for her biting irony and not just because her novels have been brought to life on TV and the big screen. Third place: Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It was through him that I discovered magical realism and I really wish I had the nerve to use it in my own writing. He’s the master, though, and I would be a poor imitator.

If you could choose a different genre to write in for just one book – what would it be?
I would love to write a thriller. Mainly because I enjoy reading them. One day, maybe…

Classics are the theme of this issue – which is your favourite Classic and why?
The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375), which I studied when I was learning Italian. He focuses on the naturalness of sex, which is what I’ve always believed is an essential part of our humanity, and I try to focus on that too in my erotic romances.

60 Seconds with Jenny Blackhurst

By Gillian Hamer

Jenny Blackhurst rediscovered her childhood love of writing after the birth of her son in 2011 and wrote her first novel between feeds and nappy changes. Jen has a Masters degree in Psychology, and when she isn’t writing works as the Fire Safety Systems Administrator for Shropshire Fire and Rescue Service. She is currently working on her second novel, which is also a psychological thriller after the amazing success of her debut release, How I Lost You.

Tell us a little about you and your writing.

I started writing How I Lost You after being made redundant in 2011 but have always loved both reading and writing. My favourite genre is crime and I am constantly thinking ‘what if’ in my day to day life.

It’s a popular genre at the moment, but why did you choose to write crime thrillers?

It’s the genre I read most in so it was a natural choice for me. If I try to write anything else it usually ends up turning to crime so it’s obviously where my first love lies!

Who are your crime author heroes?

I started my love of crime with Patricia Cornwell when I was about 11 years old but recent inspiration has come from Alex Marwood, Sharon Bolton, Mo Hayder and ultimately Sophie Hannah.

You say your own pregnancy inspired the plot of How I Lost You – how did that come about?

There are a lot of mixed up feelings which come with the arrival of a new baby and I feel it’s definitely a time a woman can feel most vulnerable and suggestible. There are so many doubts that set in about your sense of identity and who you were before vs who you are now. I found it a very emotionally rich time which was incredibly conductive to writing.

Does your Masters degree in Psychology assist in writing thrillers – and how?

Psychology is essentially the study of the mind and behaviour which is enthralling for a crime writer. Why people behave the way they do, nature vs nurture and how different people respond to stresses, and of course how our past shapes our future. It’s fascinating.

What’s the best thing about being a writer?

There are so many great things! My favourite is being part of a world I used to be a spectator in – crime writers are the most friendly people (maybe it’s because we spend so much time killing people off!) Attending Crimefest and sitting on panels with ‘real’ authors, being paid for something I would be doing anyway…the list really is endless.

And the worst?

The Fear. Is this any good? This is fantastic! This is the worst thing ever written. Ok, this might turn out alright…

Where do you write?

Anywhere and everywhere. With a four year old and a one year old I can’t afford to be precious about where I write. I’m very productive in Tesco cafĂ© and I love a long train journey. The hardest place I’ve tried to write was a soft play barn. Those places are carnage.

Which 3 books would you take to a desert island?

Just 3? Can’t I take my kindle?!? Okay, Strangers by Dean Koontz, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by JK Rowling and The Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton.

What are your future writing plans?

Hopefully to keep writing! I’m working on book 2 at the moment which is a psychological thriller but eventually I’d like to explore the genre further as well as try my hand perhaps at another genre completely, maybe horror or young adult. Essentially I just love to write and just want to keep learning the craft and improving.

Twitter: @jennyblackhurst
Facebook: https://m.facebook.com/authorJennyBlackhurst

In Conversation with Anne O'Brien

By Gillian Hamer

Hello, Anne, Welcome to WWJ. Tell us a little about you and your writing?

Hello. I am very pleased to be here with you.
I was born in West Yorkshire and lived most of my life in Beverley in East Yorkshire before moving to where I am today, in Herefordshire in the beautiful Welsh Marches where I live in an eighteenth century cottage. I gained my history degree and professional qualifications at the universities of Manchester, Leeds and Hull and have enjoyed city life as well as rural isolation. I had no long standing ambition to write, and so was a late-comer, only deciding to try my hand at historical fiction when I had some free time. From that moment, twelve years ago, I have become hooked on writing about the women of medieval England. When not writing I enjoy reading, cooking, gardening and visiting castles, cathedrals and anything with a historical vibe.

Why did you settle on historical fiction?

This was an easy choice for me. In a previous life I taught history and have always enjoyed the splendid stories and strong characters from the past. Here was an opportunity to bring these events and people - particularly the powerful but silent women of the 14th and 15th centuries - back to vivid life and give them a voice again. They may have lived 600 years ago, the social and moral pressures on their lives may have been very different from ours, but much of what they experienced, and how they reacted to it, can still resonate with us today. I particularly enjoy writing about relationships as the Plantagenet Court. For me, history is definitely not dead!

How do you handle the endless research required for histfic?

Because I have written about events in the royal Courts of the Plantagenets and Lancastrians in six novels, I now have a reasonable knowledge of what life was like, so I do not have to return to basics every time I embark on a new book. I do of course have to delve into the lives and characters of those who will people my story. I find this to be no burden at all. This is the exciting part of the work, particularly if I discover something I did not know about, something to give my story an edge or an excitement. It is a great pleasure to unwrap the story of my heroine and those who will interact with her.

What’s the best thing about being a full time author?

Quite definitely the best for me is to be able to plan when I write and how long I write, without too many outside influences and distractions. I am a morning writer, so I arrange my day to start early and work through the morning until lunch. If I need longer - when deadlines for my editor loom - then I am also free to do this.

And the worst?

I cannot think of a 'worst'. I found that when I taught full time, writing even short stories was very difficult. Even if I had the physical opportunity, my mind tended to be full of academic history and the demands of the lessons for the next day. The total freedom to write is amazing, and I am well aware of how fortunate I am.

I suppose what does irritate me most is when real life creeps in - as it does - and I have to push aside my characters and their important and emotional problems, to visit the supermarket or tackle some basic housework. And because I work at home, sometimes I cannot ignore what needs to be done around me.

For writers interested in the whole nuts and bolts process, can you give us a potted-history of your route to publication?

Here goes!
I choose a character who has something to say. Whose life involves tension or difficulties or choices that will make good drama. Without this, there will be no excitement for the reader. There is nothing worse than a totally 'good' character
I construct a detailed timeline of her life, interwoven with the lives of the characters who will play a part in her story. I add where and why and how as ideas come to me.
I select the most dramatic scenes that must be present to hold the story together, and I decide where my heroine's story will start and end.
Then I start writing.
I write a rough draft. Followed by another two or three edits and re-edits to build up the detailed layers of historical detail and the facets of character which become clearer as I write.
A final read-through to get a sense of pace and 'page-turning' quality.
Twelve months later, by which time we have lived cheek by jowl and I know my characters very well, and they have sometimes surprised me ...
I send my completed novel to my agent and editor.
This is followed by some re-editing. It is always vital to have a second opinion at this stage. I am too close to my story to be totally objective so advice is very valuable.
And then (hopefully) it is taken out of my hands for publication. A day of celebration!

What do you know now as a writer that you’ve learned since the publication of your first novel?

I  have learned two essential elements to writing historical fiction about people who actually lived. The first is the importance of historical accuracy. This is the bedrock of my writing. If the facts are known, then they cannot be changed. Outside the facts there is, of course, room for 'historical imagination' to fill in the dots as long as the character remains true to herself and the history around her.

The second is the importance of 'readability'. A novel must have pace and excitement to carry the reader on. They must be driven by a need to know what happens next. For this reason I must be selective in which historical detail I use. It is important that the lives of my characters do not become weighed down with too much historical fact. I might find the description of a particular battle fascinating, but four pages of description of who killed who will not enhance my novel! It is a lesson in self-control and careful selection.

If you could take a time machine back to any period of history, where would you go and why?

Because I have written about this in depth in recent books, I would choose to be a fly on the wall at the court of Richard II. Vigorous, extravagant, full of promise with a young monarch and good councillors, it was to descend into tragedy because of Richard's weak choices, royal favourites, politically inept decisions. Finally there was the downfall and death of the king himself. And such splendidly dramatic characters are there: John of Gaunt, Katherine Swynford, Elizabeth of Lancaster, Joan of Kent, John Holand: all of whom have appeared in my novels so far. It was a remarkable reign and I would certainly like to see it for myself.

Would you like to write a book in another genre? If so what would it be and why?

I have no plans to write in another genre, but occasionally it crosses my mind to change from medieval history to the highly romantic, tragic and colourful world of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the PreRaphaelites. There are so many exceptional characters, both the artists themselves as well as the 'stunners', the women who influenced them and their art. Can I truly abandon my medieval people for the reign of Queen Victoria? One day perhaps ...

What is next in the pipeline for you?

I have a new historical novel very close on my horizon now. It will be published in January 2016. It is 'The Queen's Choice', telling the little known story of Joanna of Navarre who became the second wife of King Henry IV in the early years of the 15th century. A mature woman with her own family, she discovered some surprising and uncomfortable obstacles for her to overcome on becoming Queen of England. Not least being accused and imprisoned for three years, by her stepson King Henry V, on a dangerous charge of necromancy. I discovered her to be a remarkable heroine, and I think that my readers will also enjoy her experiences.

We have a theme of CLASSICS for this month’s issue. Which is your favourite Classic – and why? And do you think it has influenced your own writing?

I have always enjoyed Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, told from Jane's personal point of view, the approach I use in my own writing. I enjoy the vibrancy it allows when writing from the main protagonist's point of view.
But the Classic that influenced me most was Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. I remember reading it when I was very young and romantically impressionable. I loved the colour and romance, and the weaving of real and imaginary characters into the backdrop of history. It made history come alive for me, so that I was drawn in to enjoy and suffer with those I admired or hated. It is my ambition to do the same for my readers.

For those who would like to follow Anne and keep up to date with her writing, particularly the release of The Queen's Choice:
Website: http://www.anneobrienbooks.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/anneobrienbooks
Twitter: @anne_obrien
Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/thisisanneobrie/

Classics - And Why We Love Them!

By Gillian Hamer

Do you have your own favourite Classic? A book that moved you or signified a particular period – good or bad / happy or sad – in your life. Classic novels have played a big part in a lot of people’s life stories, and for authors a big part of their careers.
Here, a few fellow writers reveal their favourites and answer three questions:

1. Your favourite Classic – and why?

2. Your favourite quote from above novel.

3. How the book has influenced your writing.


1. Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. My favourite Hardy novel. I adore novels where the landscape is an important character and the landscapes of Tess are so central to the story - Tess is also a wonderful invention - an intense and heartbreaking character. I have pondered over her role as a woman for years and I expect I will continue to do so for many years to come!

2. “...our impulses are too strong for our judgement sometimes.”

3. I think what I find most satisfying about the book is the intensity of feelings the characters have. They really live and breathe in Hardy's pages. If I have taken any influence from this book it is both Hardy's love of the natural world and also a sense of trying to create in my own novels, the kind of intensity and truth that he evokes so well in his characters.


1. My favourite (modern) classic is Kleinzeit by Russell Hoban.

2. "Summer, age something. Before a thunderstorm. Black sky. A piece of paper whirling in the air high over the street. Harmony took place.
I remember, said Kleinzeit."

3. It made me want to write about that moment when harmony happens, when we 'remember' (re-member. become unified), and that has been the motivating force for most of my novels - reaching the moment when everything just is.


1. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. The beautiful women, the handsome men, the glam period costumes and a fiery Civil War backdrop. The drama and romance!

2. “My dear, I don’t give a damn.”

3. Inspired a love of historical fiction, epic dramas based on fact, things I tend to write about in my own fiction.


1. Little Women by Louisa May Allcott

2. “Every few weeks she would shut herself up in her room, put on her scribbling suit, and 'fall into a vortex,' as she expressed it, writing away at her novel with all her heart and soul, for till that was finished she could find no peace.”

3. Remembering the excitement and anticipation of entering the world of Jo March and her sisters, and to realise at a young age I shared Jo’s passion for language and writing. It was a very exciting time for me.


1. War and Peace by Tolstoy.

2. “We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.’ OR “Because of the self-confidence with which he had spoken, no one could tell whether what he said was very clever or very stupid.”

3. In 1972, the BBC undertook the massive task of dramatising Tolstoy’s War and Peace in a 19 part TV drama. I started watching it with my family and immediately fell in love with Pierre (and incidentally with Anthony Hopkins). About halfway through, I found I couldn’t wait any longer for the net episode. I borrowed a copy of the book from the school library and went on renewing it week after week until I finished reading the same week as the TV drama reached its final episode. I am not sure I could have tackled a book like that at such a young age (or even now) without the visual images from the series to help me distinguish the multiple characters with their complicated Russian names and keep track of the multi-layered plot. But I loved it, and it taught me never to be put off by the length or the daunting reputation of a book, but to have a go and enjoy it on its own terms.

I’m not sure I’d say the novel specifically influenced my writing, but devouring an early diet of classics a) made me ambitious to tackle big subjects in my writing and b) in a less positive way made my early writing hopelessly pretentious – something it took me a long time to get over!


1. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

2. “It takes great personal courage to let yourself appear weak.”

3. It affected my writing by making me want to give up. And by making me more truthful.