This morning I’m off to the Steiner School in Castlemaine to talk about Verity Sparks again. Recently I’ve also given a talk to students at the Castlemaine Secondary College and at the Library. And last week Peta Anderson, a member of Walker Book’s publicity department who was visiting Melbourne from Sydney, asked me lots of questions about Verities #1 and #2 and filmed the interview.
Though I get a bit anxious beforehand, it does help with the nerves that I know a lot about the subject. I usually tell an audience a little about my history as a writer, and then speak about Verity – how the character came to be, how the story developed, my research and the things that helped me create the story. People are often interested in how a writer writes, too. So I talk about my routine of four to six hours on writing days; my small but full-of-books study with no internet connection (very important to stop procrastination); my A3 colour copies of paintings, illustrations or photos that help with my book; and the motto that’s stuck up on my pinboard. It’s from Edward Bawden, a brilliant English illustrator and designer – Temperament is for amateurs.
It’s there to remind me that I mustn’t wait around for inspiration or to feel like writing – I’ve just got to do it. I think in some ways writing’s like a muscle. It needs to be used in order to get strong. All of which sounds very good and professional, doesn’t it? Well, the other side of the story is that, earlier in the year, going full steam ahead with Verity #2, I wrote about 25000 words of the wrong book. That’s about 2 months hard work; half the novel.
By ‘wrong book’, I mean it just didn’t fit. It wasn’t the Verity of the The Truth About Verity Sparks – somehow she was a bit muted and subdued. Certainly, she wasn’t as active or funny or brave, and they were some of her most endearing qualities. Besides, the adventure wasn’t as adventurous, and the suspense almost wasn’t there at all. I could have tried to re-write it, but in the end, I decided to relocate the action, change some of the characters, make up a new climax and…
Well, that was where I briefly went “aarrghhh!” and tore my hair out, but then with a nod to Edward Bawden, I got on with it. My editor at Walker Books likes the revision, thank goodness, though it’s had a change of title. Originally it was going to be The Trouble with Verity Sparks but Walker thought it was too close to The Truth About Verity Sparks. Now it’s Verity Sparks, Lost and Found.
I have just seen the rough for the cover. Like the last one, it’s by illustrator Lisa Coutts, and it’s lovely. Verity’s in the foreground holding a book (books are vital clues in the plot this time). In the background is a rambling house with verandahs and balconies, roughly based on Government Cottage on Mount Macedon. And beside her is a gum tree, and up in the gum tree is a sulphur-crested cockatoo. A cocky called Lucifer is an important character in the story. Lisa has done a wonderful job at capturing the feel of the novel – with just a few lines and strokes of colour; how clever is that? – and the expression on Verity’s face is just lovely. I’m really looking forward to seeing the finished artwork.
And I suppose Walker are looking forward to seeing the finished book! I am expecting the marked-up manuscript early this week, and there will be no time for temperament.
No time for reading, either. Most of this year I’ve been working on Anything Worth Keeping, my adult novel that’s doing the rounds of publishers, and the second Verity. So there’s not been a lot of room in my head for heavy reading. The last few weeks I’ve done the rounds of comfort books. I re-read one from my grandmother’s bookshelf, a romance from the early 1930’s called Jemima Rides by Anne Hepple. Then a couple of Barbara Pyms, Excellent Women and Jane and Prudence, and the Damerosehay Trilogy by Elisabeth Goudge.
These last are the ultimate in comfort reading for me – and for other readers as well, as I find out on the internet. There’s an online community called Librarything, where you can list your books and find out who else reads and loves them. You can read reviews and lovesongs and comments and rants. Sort of idle but fascinating. The Elisabeth Goudge website was worth a look too. I found out that she suffered from depression and had a few nervous breakdowns in her life. She also cared for her sick elderly mother for many years. Which explain the understanding way she deals with old people, and the sensitive treatment of anxiety and depression and fear in her novels. But she was no heavyweight literary novelist. In her day, she was a best-seller. Green Dolphin Country, an early adult novel, won MGM’s Annual Novel Award in 1944 and was turned into a film. Her 1946 children’s novel The Little White Horse won the Carnegie Medal for Literature and gained a bit of publicity lately when J K Rowling said it was one of her favourite childhood books.
Each time I re-read a novel, I notice something new and different. This time round in the Damerosehay books I noticed the food and the dogs. Elizabeth Goudge must have adored dogs. Pooh-bah the chow, Mary the Pekinese and furry mongrel the Bastard are each characters in their own right. As was the beautiful but vain King Charles spaniel Wiggins in The Little White Horse. EG obviously had a thing for dogs. And children. The inner lives of the child characters are taken very seriously. For some people (though not for me)there are probably too many long passages of lyrical description of the natural world. She is also a very Christian writer and her themes of spiritual growth and redemption through discipline, duty and sacrifice are firmly stated and perhaps some readers would find all that rather preachy. I read them as enjoyable ‘family saga’ style stories of love and marriage and family life. Perhaps that vanished sense of sure and certain values is part of the comfort, along with the gardens and sunsets, the dogs and the feather-light pastry.
But I can’t exist on comfort books alone, and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel is just terrific. How that woman can write! It’s so immediate and in your face that I’m finding I can’t read too much at the one time. But I’ve got to get on with it and finish this weekend because until the New Year I’m working on Verity again and I can predict that my brain with be mush and it will be back to comfort. I haven’t read Sense and Sensibility for years, and it’s probably time to give Emma a whirl. And there’s also the long forgotten bestsellers from my grandmother’s shelf. Margaret Yorke by Kathleen Norris is a top favourite. However constant re-reading did show me that Norris must have written at speed; there’s a character called Lee Galvin who’s both a man and a woman (interesting?) and the wife of a man who runs off with a teenage flirt is variously totally devastated and humorously brave. I don’t think those books were meant for close critical reading.
By the way, Verity Sparks, Lost and Found will be out in May 2013.