Margaret Atwood and Eleanor Catton

The last week has been so busy. On top of our Rose Tremain visit, I chaired the Q&A with lovely Eleanor Catton, and had another workshop with Margaret Atwood. I don’t have much to add to my previous reports apart from the fact that she turned her attention to my work and deemed it:

a very good first chapter

Yeah, read that back over. A very good first chapter, huh? Now read it again. Now play it cool.

I was delighted: I’d been fully prepared for her to dismantle the thing in front of me until I burst into tears, but it went really well. She took the story seriously and helped me figure out a few knotty logistics. There are still issues, obviously, but I think they are mainly structural and I have been blessed with an excellent dissertation supervisor who might be able to help me on that front. Mostly her feedback made me feel that I’ve not misjudged this project, it’s something I have stuck with for good reason and will continue to stick with. I felt very lucky.

And then there was Eleanor Catton! Continue reading


A Visit from Rose Tremain

I’m sure if you read my last post about Music and Silence you’ll be just desperate to know what Rose Tremain had to say for herself about the treatment of the characters Magdalena Tilsen and Kirsten Munk. Well, she came to visit our Novel History class on Wednesday and I feel she defended her decisions pretty adequately. Continue reading

A Tart for Angelica Neal

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I spend quite a lot of time ‘collecting’ things for my characters: I flick through books and drift around museums quietly discovering things that might have belonged to them. These socks. That perfume bottle. This mirror. It’s part of building a well-rounded character, I think, placing these bits and pieces in their hands and their living spaces. I also spend quite a lot of time thinking about what they might like to eat: when I first invented my pleasure-loving Georgian courtesan, Angelica Neal, I spent ages researching eighteenth-century sweets and puddings. None of them actually feature in the story (so far), but imagining how she’d have eaten them, and with what enjoyment, really helped me get to the heart of her character. I’m convinced that back in 1788 Angelica would have gone absolutely wild for a baked custard tart flavoured with nutmeg and orange blossom water. Tomorrow is my very last Novel History class, so I decided to bake Angelica’s tart for our tea-break.

I have for some time treasured in my mind an 18th century recipes for ‘the most delicious orange tart’ which involved boiling Seville orange peel in milk or cream: however, I did not also treasure it in my Favourites folder, and I utterly failed in tracking it down today. Mrs Beeton gives a recipe for something quite similar, though, so I collated a few ancient recipes and crossed my fingers that I’d approximate what I was looking for.

The happy result is deliciously fragrant and unctuous, although the texture’s a little bit different from what I’d envisioned: it’s wobbly and smooth and air-bubble free, a bit like silken tofu or an old-fashioned custard tart – which I suppose is exactly what it is. I think I’d expected it to be a bit more eggy and a bit less creamy, but it is beautiful. Here’s the recipe: Continue reading

‘I don’t own the story. I own the novel.’ – Emma Donoghue

The thing that makes writing different from archaeology (setting aside, for now, the 72 other differences) is that archaeology at its most active is essentially destructive. Every effort is made not to excavate, because you can’t dig the same thing up twice. However equipped you are – with expertise, kit, people, time – you are still destroying the historical record. In digging you see how things really lay, but you can only see that once. Then it’s gone. Do you hold off in the hope that in twenty years’ time there will be new technology that will limit the amount of damage done? Or do you dive in, in the faith that what you are able to do with what you unearth will justify its unearthing? Continue reading

Another reading

Guys, I have to tell you (because surely this is what blogs are for, and I really need to start using mine properly) I’m doing another reading at The Birdcage tonight. Just a little open mic, but I’m looking forward to taking a revised version of Mrs Molloy out in public. It’s with the fabulous @UEA140story, so if you like stories this is for you.

‘language intervenes’: John Banville, plus the history of emotions

Yesterday John Banville dropped by for a Q&A with us, which as ever I enjoyed very much. He was very still and pensive, talking in a low and steady voice with his eyes on the ground, gesticulations only just energetic enough to swirl red wine up the sides of his glass. But very sparky in his thoughts about the ‘splendid struggle’ of writing, over which he seems to have exerted his own kind of calm control: he has notebooks specially made for him, and likes nice fountain pens (‘Japanese. Exquisite.’), but concedes that ‘in the end it’s just you and the page’. He doesn’t move on from a sentence until it’s exactly right, and rarely writes more than a paragraph a day. Nevertheless, he does not redraft. Continue reading

I’m doing a reading!

Just a heads-up that I’m going to be taking part in the MA reading tomorrow at The Workshop, Earlham Road, Norwich. I believe I’m the only prose student on the bill: everybody else is representing the life-writing/poetry strands.

I don’t think I’ve performed in public since my reign of terror/triumph at the Skipton Festival during the mid-90s, when I turned my hand to bible reading, Shakespeare monologues (Gertrude, at age ten. Really.), and indeed the star role in a musical production of The Pobble Who Had No Toes. I have to read my own work tomorrow, so I won’t give my public what it really wants re Lear or Psalm 23, but rest assured the delivery will be the same: a reedy monotone, eyes fixed on the far horizon, earnestly sticking to the rehearsed dramatic gestures/breathing patterns.

Do come, if you can. It’ll be fun. Starts at 6.30.

Return of the Atwood


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I felt trepidatious about our first workshopping session with Prof Margaret Atwood yesterday, as her session with the other group had taken the wind out of their sails a bit. Perhaps she was in a bad mood that time, or perhaps they were taken aback by her quite direct questions about their pieces. I do suspect that we are all quite complacent nowadays. The terror that accompanied the beginning of this course has more or less evaporated as we’ve got to know one another and hit our creative stride. Perhaps we are all too much of a gang, too comfortable, and this is why being questioned so bluntly by an outsider might feel jarring. I think it is probably good to experience this doubt and terror about one’s work every once in a while. Better than stagnating. But this is all very well for me to say, I haven’t been workshopped by her yet. Continue reading

‘the reason this is no good is because it’s no good’. Susan Hill v Alistair Campbell

At this years literary festival, it’s been arranged that the speakers will do a private Q&A with us MA students, and this week was the turn of Susan Hill It was extremely refreshing.

I made notes ages ago about Alistair Campbell’s Q&A* which was an utterly different beast: learnt absolutely nothing about writing fiction, but got a stand-out character study. His arrival at our Top-Secret Location (changed one hour before the event) was preceded by his security team, checking us off against a list of approved names and making sure we knew to keep our questions strictly about his literary endeavours. He was dressed as Alistair Campbell (navy single-breasted suit, red tie), and was almost vibrating with enthusiasm about his craft. Continue reading

No Visit From Rose Tremain


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Cheer up, babe! you’re having epic sex.


Well, Rose Tremain did not come to visit us yesterday, because she is ill: it will be rescheduled*. This was not as much of a disappointment as it might have been, as it gave us an opportunity to really dismember Music and Silence without having to consider the feelings of its author. Although I imagine she’d have been able to take it. Continue reading