I’m extremely honoured at the Reading Room to be joined by novelist, Deborah Lawrenson, whose fourth novel, Songs of Blue and Gold has recently been published by Random House. It’s a gripping and evocative novel that follows the fortunes of Melissa Quiller who is trying to deal with the double blow of her mother’s recent death from Alzheimer’s and the breakdown of her marriage after her husband’s infidelity. With her life in disarray, Melissa heads out to Corfu to track down the story behind an enigmatic reference she finds among her mother’s belongings to Julian Adie, late, great novelist and romantic adventurer. The dedication he writes to her mother in a book of his poetry leads Melissa to believe that they once knew each other intimately, although this is a part of her life that Melissa has never heard about. Once in Corfu, it’s the living that preoccupy Melissa as much as the dead, and her quest to find out about this hidden part of her mother’s life forces her to confront her own history and her own fears. Interpolated into the account of her investigations are excerpts from two biographies of Adie, one that Melissa will come to write, and one by an American academic, Martin Braxton, who is also intent on tracking down the relationship between the novelist and Melissa’s mother. He is aiming to prove Adie’s involvement with a mysterious death, as part of a much darker portrait of the artist than has previously been produced. It soon becomes clear that not only will Melissa have to see her mother in a different light, but it may be one that is tainted with terrible transgressions.
This is a beautifully plotted novel that deftly shifts the reader backwards and forwards between flashbacks of the relationship between Adie and Melissa’s mother, and Melissa’s search in the present day for the truth of their affair. The character of Julian Adie is based on Lawrence Durrell, although the author is quick to point out that the story she creates is entirely fictional. But Durrell serves as vibrant and powerful inspiration to the narrative and the sections of the book that bring him to life pack a real punch. To my mind, the other magnificent character of the narrative is Corfu, which is described exquisitely. I had what can only be termed an absolute longing to visit the island whilst I was reading the book. But there are intriguing depths to the novel as well, not least an insightful exploration into the nature of biography and the difficulties of portraying anyone’s life with accuracy and honesty, free from prejudice and agenda. Overall, I found this novel a perfect contender for that underpopulated realm of intelligent comfort reads. Vibrant, intriguing and wonderfully atmospheric, it’s just the kind of book to lose yourself in when the weather’s horrid and you need to be transported to another time and place.
To find out more about the author, do read on to the following interview, in which I get to quiz Deborah about her writing career so far and the trials and tribulations of publishing fiction. Any woman who can battle publishers while bringing up small children and keep her hand out of the biscuit jar gets my considerable respect! Oh and for readers outside the UK, I should mention that Nigel Dempster’s diary was probably the most influential newspaper gossip column of its day.
1. I see you began your career in journalism. What attracted you to it and what made you feel like you were ready to move on?
Secretly, I always wanted to be a novelist. But as I had neither the contacts nor the confidence to write a book straight out of university, I needed to find a job where I could write, get some experience and make some contacts. I was accepted onto the (now defunct) Westminster Press graduate journalism course, with a job at the end of it on a south London weekly newspaper, the Kentish Times. A good old-fashioned newspaper training, and one I’ve been grateful for ever since.
After a couple of years, I made the leap up to Fleet Street. Back then, the mid-1980s, it was still literally Fleet Street, or just behind in the case of the Daily Mail. El Vino’s was full of the kind of alcohol-soaked hacks (mostly men…) who might have been having yet another one for the road bound for Libya or Beirut. I began as cannon-fodder in the notoriously tough Mail newsroom. Whatever the country at large thinks of the Daily Mail’s editorial standpoint, it’s known in the business as the leanest and meanest of nationals to work for, with a surprisingly eclectic staff. I lasted about two weeks in news. But then, a stroke of luck. I was asked to join Nigel Dempster’s diary team, another slick operation but with lunches and parties for film stars and theatre legends, writers and aristos… Soon I was beginning to see how I could finally start that novel.
2. How did you find the transition from journalism to fiction writing?
A breath of fresh air! Despite what people like to imagine about newspapers, most journalists really do not make things up. My own experience was that every story was checked and double-checked. It was like a being a detective sometimes, the ingenious ways we had to find of contacting the people we wanted to write about and then finding diplomatic ways of putting awkward questions. But we always did it, sometimes tortuously, sometimes hilariously. (The mercurial Dempster was always quick to clap his hands in glee at an audacious piece of lateral thinking!) Sometimes it was easy. Everyone from dukes to theatrical legends was happy to help fashion an amusing tale if it promoted their memoirs, etc.
The great joy of writing fiction was that I could happily write whatever came into my head without fear of a costly libel action. I left the Mail with great memories and a fund of unlikely stories that might possibly be true.
3. I’d love to know the story of getting your first novel into print – was it an arduous journey or relatively straightforward?
I have to say that part was straightforward. But there had been a lot of careful groundwork before the strike. My first novel was a newspaper satire about working on a Fleet Street gossip column and as I’d foreseen, there was a ready-made marketing angle that made a publisher fairly easy to find. An old Cambridge friend who by that time was well on his way to becoming a top non-fiction agent placed it with Heinemann and it was published as a Mandarin paperback original. That was the good news.
The bad news was that it in my mind this book was a modern reworking of Waugh’s Vile Bodies in the style of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. Don’t laugh. I certainly wasn’t by the time it was re-titled Hot Gossip and packaged as a beach read for the Woman’s Own market.
It got a decent review in The Times and the pictures of the launch party in Hello. But although sales were OK, I had the awful feeling that the readers who might really enjoy the book would never in a million years have picked it up because of the garish cover and title – and those who did buy it had ended up baffled and disappointed. It was an early lesson in the realities of commercial publishing. But I was grateful enough to accept a second contract for a sequel, Idol Chatter.
4. I remember seeing The Art of Falling in every bookshop when it came out. What was it like to be the author of a bestselling novel? Did it change things for you?
When The Art of Falling was published by Arrow (Random House) in 2005, I felt apprehensive, exhausted – and vindicated. Because there was a saga behind it that I never imagined when I began to write what I was hoping was my first serious novel back in 1998.
I’d had a baby. A third novel, a black comedy called The Moonbathers had come out and disappeared without trace. Finally I had to start writing a proper book as opposed to entertainments that I had written knowing there was a good chance of getting them published. I happily settled to several years of researching and writing.
The Art of Falling was set in Italy at the end of the second World War and in the present day. It was part-detective story, part romance but with a serious point about the flawed blueprints of family life. When I finished it, sure that it was the best thing I had yet written, I was cut to the quick by my literary agent’s reaction: he wasn’t sure it would work, and didn’t think he would be able to place it. The problems were several, all to do with the commercial realities of modern publishing: it was different from my previous books; it didn’t fit a recognised genre; and it was not clear whether this was a literary or commercial novel.
It was a refrain I was to hear over and over the next few years, as a new, highly respected literary agent took it on and sent it out. No-one ever said it was a bad book, just hard to publish successfully. It made me so mad, that in 2003 I published it myself. Using my newspaper experience, I publicised it myself, got some lovely reviews, made friends – lasting friends in some cases – with some wonderful booksellers, got a new agent, and about ten months later, after Ottakar’s (much missed) put it on their nationwide order list, we sold the rights to Random House.
Luck, in the form of WHSmith which made it part of their prestigious Fresh Talent promotion, ensured that Arrow put some marketing muscle into the publication, and The Art of Falling was one of Random’s summer hits, selling on and on. That was a real high point.
Did that change things for me? Well, not really.
5. Do you have a writing routine?
Sit down at 8.30 and get cracking. Hours pass like minutes. Go for a walk. Start again for as long as possible. No fuss, no sighing, no biscuits. No-one who has ever had to research and write a news story in half an hour (when the printing presses on the ground floor have already rolled and started shaking the building) has much truck with writer’s block…
6. How was the process of publishing your latest novel, Songs of Blue and Gold?
Honestly? Frustrating at times. I feel very proud to say I’m a Random House author. Doors certainly open, and there are some really dynamic people there. But large publishing houses can also be lonely places for the mid-list author who has not secured the big sell-in to the supermarkets or some other special retail promotion.
Your square book may well be hammered into a round hole in pursuit of a target market. You can feel you are whistling in the wind for recognition of the book you have actually written. I would have loved a reference to Lawrence Durrell on the back cover, for example, but that was not in the game plan. I can understand why. They sell millions of books very successfully; they know what they’re doing. But the process inevitably favours the mega-selling mass market authors.
My book’s published as a paperback original, too. And no hardback means no reviews in the literary pages of the serious press. That’s been tough, especially as this novel has been gathering some really lovely reviews in the wider media where people see further than format. In a Corfiot magazine, the respected Durrell academic Richard Pine wrote some unexpectedly wonderful words: “one of the few women writers who has understood the psyche and the angst of Durrell himself”.
ReaI practical support has come from independent booksellers like Venetia Vyvyan at Heywood Hill in London and Louise Vance at another gem of the book world, The Sandwich Bookshop, who came on BBC Radio Kent with me this week and gave it a rave. I’ve also have also been bowled over by the fantastic reviews by those of you who write such perceptive, erudite and passionate literary blogs. I can’t tell you what a boost this has been and I’m more grateful than I can say.
7. The descriptions in your latest novel are just gorgeous. Did you spend much time in Corfu for research?
A few weeks, at different times. Corfu was inspirational, and with Durrell’s own words alongside, quite magical. It’s all still there: the sea “curdling milky green” on the rocks below his White House, and the bear-brown and violets of the Albanian coast so close across the strait.
8. I’ve now started reading Lawrence Durrell, having been inspired by your novel. How do you feel about him as a man and a writer?
His mesmeric writing drew me in. Both his own words and all those written about him give the impression that he was a dazzling force of nature, with great energy, ambition and a true gift for friendship. Yet he was flawed too. Perhaps he was too idealistic, perhaps too selfish at times, but did his failings make him a bad man, or a more dangerously human one?
From a novelist’s point of view, he led a life crammed full of interest: the escapism of his constant moves around the Mediterranean; his romantic adventuring – his four wives and many lovers; his phenomenal literary success after many years of constant hard work; and later, the ever-harder drinking and self-destructive urges.
I see Lawrence Durrell as a man who embraced life, and used everything that came his way to enhance it and his work. But underneath the sybaritic exterior lay immense seriousness and courage. What guts it must have taken at times to start yet again, in so many new places and new relationships, always testing himself with virtuoso displays of creativity. Through all kinds of reverses and sadness, he was determined to be the writer he wanted – no, needed – to be, and this, I think, was both his strength and his weakness.
9. I think there’s a really intriguing development to your work as a writer. Where do you think you might go with your next novel, or is that something that only comes out of the process of writing itself?
I’m going to have to sit down and see how it turns out – sometimes not at all how I imagined at the start…
10. What are the best and the worst things about writing for a living?
Best is being immersed in words. As I’ve become more practised, it has become even more of a pleasure. Worst is that “writing for a living” is still an aspirational concept for me. There’s no way I could support even myself on what
I earn. Thank God for a generous and understanding husband!