Review: Kate Tempest, reading from her new novel @DLWP

This is a late review. I’m not sure why I didn’t write it up last month, I can only think that I had too much on. But anyway, last month I saw Kate Tempest read from her new novel, The Bricks That Built the Houses . Tempest is better known for her spoken word poetry, and was up front about this being her first novel. Up front is very much her style, uncompromising, and it made for a slightly awkward interview. Tip: if you are talking to Kate Tempest on stay, find an interviewer more empathetic to her style than a middle aged man. The question and answer session was stilted and awkward, with Tempest only finding her flow when she ad-libbed with the audience. (Interestingly, I pick up the same vibe from an interview with Tempest in the May issue of Vogue… doesn’t seem to be online but you can see the photoshoot here.) She brought her dog to the event and there was a nice moment when he let her know he wasn’t too happy to only see her from a distance.

This isn’t a review of the book, I haven’t read it yet – busy month, long pile of books to read, and in many ways I don’t want to read it. Instead, like a member of the audience requested, I want to hear Kate herself read it. In her hands, a page of prose became poetry, because transformed, became music. The way she performs the words dance off the page. This is a book that begs to become an audiobook, read by the author. There’s a review of the book in the New Yorker if you want an insight from someone who has read it. Interestingly, at the New York launch, the audience wanted her to keep reading from the book.

So, what have I learned from Kate Tempest? I’m just about to embark on reading some of my work out loud at a small event. In watching Kate Tempest I was totally inspired about finding the rhythms in my work when I read it out loud. I think for every writer, performing work changes it: when practising for my event I see extraneous phrases to cut that look fine when they lie unspoken on the page.  I’ve always been a writer, but not the person on stage. I need to find the performer in me.

The Bricks That Built the Houses costs £8/9/10 depending on format at time of writing.


Review: The Making of Her

 I’ve been reading Susie Nott-Bower’s first novel, The Making of Her, and I’m impressed.  Too often one looks at the small and independent press as a second choice for publication, but The Making of Her shows that there’s nothing second rate about working with independent publishers. The book examines being a woman in the twenty first century where looks are valued over experience. It asks questions about how we regard ourselves, how we see our flesh and skin as it changes over the years. Nott-Bower uses her experience in the world of television, the medium that puts a magnifying glass to our lives, and writes the story of Clara, a TV producer who has just reached 50 and denies her birthdays. She can’t combat other peoples’ perceptions as she wrangles with her young assistant Alix who is after her job. Clara’s best friend Josephine is married to a successful playwright and has let her own dreams of writing become buried in a verbally abusive relationship where all she is, is typist, copyeditor and cheer leader in chief.

In advance of the Reading and Being Read conference at the British Library on Saturday 20th February, 11am-4pm, I spoke to Susie Nott-Bowers about her experience of writing and publishing The Making of Her. Susie says, “It started when I went on a University of Falmouth How to Write a Novel course. The course equipped me with the steps I needed to write a novel, and we formed a critique group that met fortnightly for quite some time afterwards. I set myself a deliberately achievable target of 2000 words each week. I made a schedule and within a year I had my first draft.”

The novel follows Clara’s struggle as, within creasing pressure at work, she is forced to put aside her feminist principles and the documentaries she usually worked on for a straightforward makeover show. Susie says, “I’d worked in television for many years, and while I hadn’t worked on a makeover programme it was easy to find out about them. Clara and Jo are two sides of myself, the ambitious, outward person in need of finding femininity, and the introverted writer, the person who was in need of spirit. The novel was a way to allow them to find the hidden part of themselves.” Clara’s battle for her career, to ensure that she is seen as someone who still has value, interweaves with gradual revelations from her past. Jo finds the courage to take steps to change her life: as she separates from her soul-sucking husband she rediscovers herself, at first gradually and then with one drastic step that changes things for both herself and for  Clara.

Susie completed her first draft and says, “It began as a very depressing novel, entitled The Change. I gradually edited it, changed the title, added humour, and then sent it off to a selection of literary agents. I had a few requests, but no-one took it on. An agent had held on to the manuscript for many months and then sent a brutal rejection. I was ready to throw in the towel, but a friend from my course sent me the link to Linen Press.  With a last throw of the dice, I sent it to this unknown press. Within 24 hours Lynn rang to ask for the rest of the book, within a week she had offered me a contract subject to some revisions. We spent quite a few months working on it – Lynn is a fantastic editor. She asked me to write a new opening, she wanted more of Pete Street and I added a couple of smaller sub plots. At the end it was sub edited, I had a hand in choosing the cover, and it was published.”

Looking back at her experience of being published, Susie says, “It was a strange time. I was very much taken up with my parents health at the time. I did a lot of publicity, and Lyn helped too. I must have written to every magazine and newspaper in the country with no response, but a lot of bloggers read it and reviewed it. It was mixed though: wonderful to have the book published, but difficult to get it out there and get it read. It has sold several hundred copies. The small press experience has had many wonderful sides. Friends have had good and bad experiences with bigger publishers. I think all writers hanker after the big contracts. The main driver for me is for as many people as possible to read what you have written.”

Currently Susie is working on her second novel. She says, “I started another novel, then paused due to life events at 30,000 words, and now I’m looking at it again, with ideas of replanning and replotting. I put so much into that first novel and have doubts about doing it again which slow me down when completing the second novel. I wrote the first book in innocence, and now I’m writing in experience. I was reading Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, all about the creative process. In the book, Elizabeth Gilbert says the outcome of any creative act is a souvenir of the process, ‘something to remind you forever of your brief but transformative encounter with inspiration.’” However you publish your work, it is this reminder that we all hope to create.

Reading and Being Read takes place at the British Library on Saturday 20th February, 11am-4pm, and is run in association with The Institute for Modern and Contemporary Culture, University of Westminster. Book here.

The Making of Her is available from Amazon and costs £5.99 on Kindle, or from in paperback for £11.99.




This review first appeared on The Contemporary Small Press site.

Review: David Jones and Pallant House

Last weekend I went to see the David Jones exhibition at Pallant House in Chichester. At the moment I seem to have the habit of only getting to exhibitions in their last few weeks … but you have until 21st February to visit, and it’s well worth it. The gallery has much more to it than I ever imagined, Chichester is lovely, and the David Jones exhibition is fascinating.

David Jones (1895-1974) is a modernist writer and artist. I first came across his somewhat impenetrable book, In Parenthesis when researching WW1 writing for my dissertation. In Parentheses, for all that some of it is difficult to read, does an amazing job of conveying written trauma, of addressing the impossibility of writing war experience in a linear and coherent way without diminishing the event. Jones has a breakdown after completing the work which was published in 1937.

Some of the exhibition focussed on Jones’ war art, but there was much else. In his early work, which was much more realistic, he depicted homes, people and animals. Some of his later works are fascinating word pictures, mixing Latin and Welsh, scratched crayon or chalk, and different fonts. This one, right, translates as ‘Truth is the best muse’.

Another expression of Jones’ later work is the much less realistic drawings he did. Many of these involve flowers and trees that seem to grow across the canvas, mixing pen, pencil and watercolour in a crazy compilation of images.

The exhibition took us from Jones’ very first drawings – an impressive lion, age seven, through to the end of his life. It was beautifully curated, and everything that I’d hoped for. Had that been all I’d seen I’d have been happy, but we noticed that there was a tour at two o’clock as well. We stayed at the gallery for lunch in the restaurant (£14.95 for two courses, excellent food, and there is also a café. Go there in warmer weather and there is lovely outdoor seating.)

The curator took us round some of the exhibits from Pallant House’s extensive collections, many of which have been donated to the organisation. The majority of works were by British artists from the last century, with some European work.


Cat, by David Jones

There was a gallery of portraits, including a self portrait of Lucien Freud, one of landscapes, and some of late twentieth century works. The person leading the talk knew plenty to keep us interested, and explained how Pallant House has been transformed from grand home to council offices to art gallery, and how in 2006 the large modern extension was built.


Alongside the works by well known and lesser known artists there were works from students and recent graduates from the art degree at Northbrook College. These works drew inspiration from the surroundings. I loved the ceramic hyacinths, placed alongside the hyacinths in the Lucien Freud portrait, and the fabric cushions and bird, inspired by the ostriches at the front of Pallant House.

If you do have a spare day at a weekend or over half term, do try and take the time to visit Pallant House.



Lucien Freud early pencil self portrait

Works by new artists emerging from Northbrook College

One of my favourite pieces, The South East Corner, Jerusalem, by David Bomberg


Find out more about visiting Pallant House.

Midwinter writing retreat #whatimwriting

I’ve just spent a fabulous weekend at a writing retreat at the new home of the Sussex House Party.  Hosted by Gilly Smith and Jed Novick, the weekend was a great mix of good food, good company and great inspiration.

We arrived Friday night for a delicious Syrian inspired dinner with home cooked bread, and the chance to get to know the eight writers taking part. Some of us had come from Sussex, others from much further afield. Most people were in the midst of a big project like a novel, memoirs or a set of themed short stories.

Saturday morning I woke to a beautiful view of the frosty Sussex countryside. A pheasant made its way slowly across the lawn, and I could hear Jed and Gilly’s dogs somewhere across the fields. A hot cooked breakfast was followed by an hour and a half of inspiration from Tom Connelly, author of The Spider Truces, a story about a father and son, spiders and growing up in Kent which is now top of my reading list. He spoke about his transition from film maker to writer, his writing successes and failures, and shared his advice to just keep writing.  (Tom reckons it takes him five years per book which helps me keep going!). Tom followed this with one to ones with each author.  He was gently interested in each person’s works and willing to share his own experiences.

I spent the afternoon working in my room, a beautiful white walled room with touches of red and gold. It was a great place to get more deeply into the characters in my current book, which is set in London, West Africa and on the Kent coast. I discovered more about the motivation of the female lead character, what makes her behave the way she does, and what holds her back. I also drafted a couple of tricky scenes which although i wasn’t sure about them at the time have made a helpful contribution to the book as I look at them now.

The evening passed with wine and conversation and Gilly’s delicious cooking: it was a real treat to have someone else plan and prepare meals. We also got the privilege of hearing the first draft of Katie’s song about her father, which was very moving.

Sunday morning we woke up to snow so I went for  a quick walk round, making sure I got some fresh air and movement, however tempted I was to stay in and just write.

As I returned to the house, writer William Shaw was driving up. I’ve written about William’s Breen and Tozer series before, so it was great to get the chance to hear his take on writing. He was very focussed in the one-to-ones. While I might have asked him about his writing, he was clear that he was there to find out about what I was working on. It was reassuring to hear that he thinks I’m on the right track. And over lunch I did get to hear about his new book, The Birdwatcher which is out in May.

The weekend overall was truly special, and right now I’m trying to fend off the come down! Gilly and Jed are great hosts, the authors who came to speak to us were lovely people, and it was fabulous to hear the work and inspiration from the other writers taking part. At the end of the event, the feeling was very much, ‘When can we do this again?’, and I already have plans to meet up with and stay in touch with the supportive group that we formed.


Review: Rebecca at the Theatre Royal, Brighton

Should you read the book before seeing the play (or film?) I don’t know – there are arguements for both! This weekend a friend and I took my 13 year old daughter to see Rebecca, the stage adaptation of the Daphne Du Maurier book. D had never read it, I had read it many years ago and had made the decision not to refresh my memories before the play. I came out, however, with a burning need to re-read the book, and the impression of the ghost of many things unsaid.

The set is often the first thing that interests me in a play .. or otherwise! First impressions count and as the curtain rose I got just the right impression. The set was part crumbling mansion, part beach and it flexed perfectly with the scenes of the story. As the play opened a corpse is lowered down and placed under a boat which then forms the centre stage, just right for the theme of the story. The cast did a great job with the musical parts of the play, songs inspired by the period and very much in line with the coastal setting. As the first half of the play progresses we meet the new Mrs de Winter, watch her meet her in-laws and the staff. This part of the play is played for laughs – Maxim de Winter’s sister Bea and her husband Giles are comic characters and the young serving boy Robert is humorous in a way that I found over-the-top and distracting from the plot. Perhaps that’s what it takes to sell a story from 1938 to audiences in 2015 – the theatre was largely full, so the recipe to turn classic novel into entertainment is working. And the dog … I nearly forgot to mention the dog! Have a look at some of the reviews on the Kneehigh Theatre site for more on whether a puppet dog is a good addition to the play.

The mood of the play took a twist at the end of the first half and the the second part was in many ways more in line with the spirit of the novel, but still there is always the issue that you can fit far more detail into a book than a play. Mrs Danvers was marvellously evil, the new Mrs de Winter’s transformation from innocent to tainted took place, and Maxim de Winter became exposed as we saw his torment. The cast did a good job as the action moved to a climax and the impossible situation that Rebecca has left as her legacy played out. But still, the book is so much more.

Watch the play, then re-read the book, or read it for the first time. The play is good – it takes you from laughter to tears – challenging the emotions is one of my key requirements for theatre – but the book is better. I’m off for a quiet read…

Brighton Festival: Jeanette Winterson and more

I picked up the Brighton Festival programme at the station a few months back and was overwhelmed with the range of events on offer. I’m doing a MA in Critical and Creative Writing and Ali Smith had already been in to speak, so I was interested to see what she would include in the month’s events, and I wasn’t disappointed. At all! My only challenge was to choose what to see.
‘Boldness in the Face of a Blank Page’ was the title of Jeanette Winterson’s talk, and it wa great to be able to take up a friend’s spare ticket as I’d missed out on buying my own – tickets sold really quickly. The talk took place the night of the general election, and Winterson had a great rapport with the left leaning audience who’s main concerns were ‘Labour or green?’ She started by explaining how her talk had little to do with the title, which she had come up with when called by the festival co-ordinators! Despite that disclaimer, her talk was full of boldness and took us through her personal slant on writing. She is a sparky well-informed speaker, mixing quotes from her own work with others. A quote that stuck with me ties in with my own research on story:

‘Of course that is not the whole story, but that is the way with stories; we make them what we will. It’s a way of explaining the universe while leaving the universe unexplained, it’s a way of keeping it all alive, not boxing it into time. Everyone who tells a story tells it differently, just to remind us that everybody sees it differently. Some people say there are true things to be found, some people say all kinds of things can be proved. I don’t believe them. The only thing for certain is how complicated it all is, like string full of knots. It’s all there but hard to find the beginning and impossible to fathom the end. The best you can do is admire the cat’s cradle and maybe knot it up a bit more.’

Jeanette Winterson Oranges are Not the Only Fruit P119 Vantage London 2014

 So, the talk was great, the Dome was packed and the audience asked relevant and mostly interesting questions: in a lot of ways it was very typical of the whole Brighton Festival experience. Brighton is a unique city, with a mix of artists and tech-specialists, right on the coast. Walk through the city and you’ll see amazing fashion and style too, street performers, and posters for the hundreds of events that formed part of the Brighton Festival Fringe. As well as the Winterson talk, there were other literary events, lots of theatre and book readings for adults and kids, events ranging from Jaqueline Wilson and Noggin the Nog to Ali Smith’s own talk. And somehow in there, Smith wove themes such as Art and Nature, and Crossing Places, looking at the crossover between art forms, to create a wonderful month of events that drew together the best of Brighton and beyond.