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Friday, February 27, 2015

Go East Young Man: William Burton McCormick

A two-time Derringer Award finalist, William Burton McCormick's fiction has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine and others. William has lived in seven countries including more than two years spent in Latvia, the setting of  Blue Amber. His first novel, Lenin's Harem, about the birth and death of the first Latvian independence, was recently deemed historically accurate enough to included in Latvia's War Museum's permanent library in Riga, a rare honor for a foreign writer of historical fiction. 

He is a member of the Crime Writers Association, Mystery Writers of America, the Historical Novel Society, and International Thriller Writers. He earned an MA in Novel Writing from the University of Manchester, studied Russian language and history at Moscow State University and was elected a Hawthornden Writing Fellow in Scotland in 2013. He was also Highly Commended for the Yeovil Literary Prize in 2010.

Welcome, Bill!
Thank you for having me, Jean. Great to be here.

 How did a boy from Maryland end up in Latvia? There has to be a story! Oh, yes, there's a story. In fact several.  But the shortest and simplest one is that I was living in Washington D.C., and planning on writing a thriller set in Eastern Europe. I didn't yet have a specific country as a setting for the novel, so I went to the Latvian Museum in RockvilleMaryland and bought some books on Latvia and its history. I was surprised at what I learned, fascinated and terrified about what had happened there and in the other Baltic States.  Later, after getting accepted in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Manchester, I managed to visit Latvia. At that point, I knew I'd have to live there if I was going to do any serious research for writing purposes.  So, I moved to Riga, fell in love with the city, and the rest is history.

What is it about Eastern Europe that inspires your writing? Many things. The cultural differences, the amazing history, the shadow of Soviets and the various politics of the individual governments, the tension between East and West, beautiful landscapes, beautiful architecture, ugly Soviet architecture, fascinating twists of history, the mix of societies within Eastern Europe (Ukrainian culture is very different than, say, Georgian culture), the changes in a post-Soviet world (if Mr. Putin will allow it), the continuing of religious faith underground during Soviet times, wonderful little nooks and crannies of places I discover walking around everyday.    On that last point, Mark Twain said real places are never on maps. He was right. Go there, see the details.

Your short stories have been  very successful: published in top mystery magazines and you’re a Derringer Award finalist, twice.  Are short stories your favourite genre? I certainly love short stories. Poe is one of my influences, and he believed the short story was a greater art form than the novel because intense emotion can only be maintained in a reader for a very short time.  When this is achieved, Poe thought, the story must end as soon as possible. That said, I love novels, and how a longer narrative evolves chapter to chapter.  I enjoy the intricate plotting of a novel.  So, I'd say they're about equal with me.

Which elements do you think makes the ideal short story? I don't think you can say there are universal and necessary elements to a short story, because as soon as you set those rules someone will break them in a brilliant way.  Obviously, as a general guideline, a short story should start as much as possible 'in the action" because of its necessary brevity.  Though that rule could be applied to novels as well, couldn't it? Most novels are too long by half.

Do you stick to the rule that there must be a twist at the end?I love twist endings but they're challenging to do. More times than not the reader can see it coming, and, if so, then the twist isn't really a twist is it? There are lots of beautiful short stories without a twist, especially literary ones. How many twist endings does say James Joyce have?  That said, especially in the mystery or thriller genres, a twist ending is usually expected. I sometimes start with the twist and build backwards from there.

What are the greatest challenges in working within a limited word-count? I imagine every word must do exactly that - count!Having a limited word count is indeed challenging, but in a way it really tightens up your writing. You don't have the luxury of going on and on. It is why I increasingly find myself drawn to flash fiction. Trying to tell a whole story in less than 1000 or 500 words is really a great exercise for writers. You agonize over every adjective, restructure your sentences for brevity, and eliminate anything remotely extraneous.     You find out how to imply things you'd otherwise waste space explaining.  I think writing three or four flash fiction pieces is a good warm up for a longer short-story or even for writing the chapters of your novel. Less is more. In fact, of all the fiction I've written, my parents' favorite seems to be a 300 word short-short for Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. It's a complete story with intro, plot, twist and resolution in space only about twice as long as this question and answer.

Does the method of developing character differ? Do you stick to a small cast?
You certainly don't have the space to develop characters, so, for me, I absolutely have to stick to a small cast. It's also so difficult in a short story to switch points of view. I've done it, others do it, but a lot of creative writing types will tell you that it's better to keep the view to one character in a short story.

Have you ever started writing a short story and thought, this has the potential to be a novel?
No. In fact, I've often had the opposite experience where I decide while writing a novel that the plot would be better served as a short story or novella.

Let’s talk about your new book, the novella Blue Amber. By the way, I love the jacket ;) and it’s an intriguing title. Why did you choose Blue Amber?
Yes, that jacket is just brilliant, isn't it? Clearly made by a simply fabulous artist who will probably wish to remain humbly nameless despite her stunning talent? Or does she? ;) Blushing and moving on quickly
    As for Blue Amber, well, without giving away the plot, I wanted the character of Fricis to find something very valuable on that beach, and a rare form of amber seemed logical. Originally I considered "red amber", as I liked how "red" hinted at the revolutionary connection in the story, but as many types of amber have a reddish hue they aren't too valuable. Blue amber is extremely rare in the Baltic Sea (it is more common in South America), and I liked how "blue" connected with water or sea, which plays a big part in the story, so I settled on that.

How would you describe the main character? He's a man who has been unlawfully imprisoned, who is going to be executed for his views, and simply wants to survive to help his people and his wife. I think that even with the historical and relatively exotic setting of Latvia, every reader can engage with such a character. He's universal. At least, I hope so.

The story had me hooked and every detail feels real. Was it based on real events?
Sort of. The character of Fricis is based upon a real revolutionary, and he did escape from prison.  No one knows how, so I had creative license to do what I wanted. Also, the murder of revolutionaries during fabricated escape attempts was a real thing.

Was it your intention to write a story with a message or a moral? No. But if it was my intention to include a moral I wouldn't tell you! J I believe authors should remain silent and let the readers take what they wish from any story.

Your work shows an insider’s knowledge of eastern European politics. Do you have a clear allegiance yourself? Are you concerned about being controversial in your books and attracting unwanted attention? Well, I only owe allegiance to my homeland, the good ole USA (and maybe the Fallowfield part of Manchester), but I have fallen in love with Latvia, Estonia and Ukraine. And what is happening in Ukraine now tears me up.    As for controversy or attention, I couldn't care less.  I write what I write.

How did you come to be a writer? I've always been a storyteller. At some point, I just decided to start setting all these stories down. Nothing more sophisticated than that, really.Who gave you your first encouragement as a writer? When I applied to the MA Program at the University of Manchester, I was required to have a telephone interview with novelist Suzannah Dunn, who was then the course's director.  She had read three chapters of a novel I'd submitted with the application. In those three chapters I alternated first and second person points of view between two characters, apparently a risky move. She told me she thought this style was really interesting and really bold, and let me into the program. Such encouragement from a very successful historical novelist was a huge boon to my confidence as a writer.

If you were trying to describe your writing to someone who hasn’t read anything by you before, what would you say? People tell me my writing style is "cinematic," whatever that means in practice.    I'd say my writing is usually historical fiction, usually set in Eastern Europe, either with a lot of humor, mystery, action,  or politics, though there are a lot of exceptions to all of these.

Do you find yourself returning to any recurring themes within your writing and, if so, are you any closer to finding an answer? 
No answers. I'm not so intellectual. My crusade against "theme-ism" is about as successful as Don Quixote's crusade against windmills.  

I would love to read your novel Lenin’s Harem but it’s out of print at the moment. Can you give us an update on when it might be available?
Lenin's Harem sold very well, but went out of print only because of a dispute with the original publisher, Knox Robinson Publishing. The good news is we have just been awarded a default judgment against them for nonpayment on an advance for the translations rights sale.  In my opinion, Knox Robinson Publishing has not been cooperative or in anyway helpful in resolving this issue.
    The good news is I am very close to signing another agreement with a new publisher to put Lenin's Harem back in print. I would expect it by mid-summer.

What do you think is the greatest advantage of self-publishing? Well, Blue Amber is the first story I've self-published, so I'm a novice at this. But, I'd say, that compete creative control is the obvious answer.  The artist can give the world his or her vision unaltered or unimpeded by any publisher, producer, editor or agent. That's not always a good thing, but it is the most honest one.

Is there anything you feel self-published authors may miss out on? Well, though it somewhat counters what I just said, a strong editor.  Some self-published work, though by no means all of it, could use a good pruning.    Obviously, also the promotion or distribution a traditional publisher provides would help, though in fairness few publishers do much of the former unless you're a proven seller.

What are you working on at the moment? I've got a lot of irons in the fire. Two thrillers, one set in modern Riga, another set in 19th century Odessa (and a full-length sequel to my Derringer-nominated story The Antiquary's Wife).     Also, I am editing a war novel I wrote set in Russia, Latvia and the East End of London.  The opening of it was commended for the Yeovil Literary Prize a few years ago, I just need the time to edit it and polish up the narrative.  I've been saying that for years, though.Some authors have one particular person in mind when they write. Do you have a muse – or perhaps an imaginary ideal reader? I have a friend in Ukraine, who is my muse! She is certainly an influence on my writing.  But, speaking generally, I try not to have an imaginary reader in mind when writing something. I do try to play the audience ("like violin" as Hitchcock would say), and imagine what they're thinking. You have to do this if you're going to guide them through your story. But a specific imaginary reader or demographic is a fool's game I think. Yes, I'm aware of the "know your audience" rule, but I think if you write for everyone, you end up writing for no one.  I trust my instincts. If I like what I've written, I'm pretty sure there are other misfits out there like me who will enjoy it too.It's kind of like the song "Little Room" by the White Stripes.  I've never heard the creative process and its aftermath summed up so succinctly and accurately.  If you don't know it, have a listen.  I'll wait. No, that’s new to me - nice choice!

Have you ever found that a book you were reading was influencing your writing style? I've never consciously noticed this when I've been reading a book for pleasure. I'm sure my literary influences are all mixed in there when I write, and I can sometimes see them, but not so much with a new book I'm reading at the time I'm writing something else.   It takes awhile to filter down, I guess.   I have, at times, decided to write a specific scene or in a specific style and gone back and referenced how others have done it. For example, when I was going to show a large party scene on a Baltic-German manor, I referenced how Margaret Mitchell depicted the American South's equivalent at the opening of Gone with the Wind.  When, I wanted subtle horror in my story, I read a host of M.R. James stories to see how it was done.

Some writers need silence, others like the buzz of a coffee shop, the rumble of a train or their favourite music. Which type are you? I work best at a library. (For example, I'm typing up this answer at the Latvian NationalLibrary in Riga, a simply stunning place, have a look)
    When I'm in foreign countries, I like to get out, and I often write in coffee shops too, but only as long as nobody close to me is speaking English. If I can't understand the language, then it just becomes ambient noise, and I can get work done. But if a few people having an English language conversation sit down, it pulls my attention to them and I have to move.  I'm sure I've flashed a lot of dirty looks to my countrymen over the years for killing my creativity around the world.  Sorry guys.    In America or Britain, I don't have this problem since the English language doesn't stick out from the background noise. There I can write nearly anyplace. I've finished short stories in some astonishingly loud places, including concert halls and casino sports-books. Music doesn't bother me as long as I like the songs.    The one thing I can't do is to write while on something moving.  Planes, trains, and buses are a no go. And I have to get far away from the internet or television, I'm an addict.

What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person?
First person (and second person) are much easier, but often you've got to do it in third person for the needs of the plot/style/twist/conflict, etc.

Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day? I think all authors have scraps sitting around. But I've got two complete novels’ worth of material, some of it quite good on a few hard drives. It always amounts to how to use your time. And, unfortunately, editing and sifting through old stuff is not as fun for me as writing new stories.  I guess it comes down to my being a storyteller more than a writer. Once I've set the story down, I want to be on to the next thing.

What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? My favorite is the sheer creativity. Lying in bed half awake with new ideas floating into your mind, then getting up and making those things a reality, something you can share with others. And when you get that perfectly balance story, it’s a wonderful thing.    My least favorite aspect would be crashing hard drives. Tell me about it!

What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Do it because you love writing, storytelling or the beauty of prose on the page/screen. Or perhaps because you have something to say about the world in which we live.    Don't do it for money, fame or because a guy who looks like Salman Rushdie got to date supermodels.

As a reader, which writers or books are your favourites? Is there a genre you are drawn towards? In terms of full-length literary fiction Herman Melville's Moby-Dick is still the greatest novel I've ever read (even though he completely contrasts all I said about "less-is-more" in a book.) John Steinbeck is close behind. Of Mice and MenGrapes of Wrath, East of Eden, the list goes on.    For full-length genre fiction, I would say that Alistair MacLean's Guns of Navarone and its sequel Force Ten from Navarone got me writing as a kid and Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon and Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles returned me to writing as an adult. I also like James Ellroy, particularly Black Dahila and L.A. Confidential, (really the whole L.A. Quartet is excellent), and Shirley Jackson, Bram Stoker, Ian Fleming, Brian Dailey and Alan Dean Foster.For short stories, as I mentioned Poe is a favorite, as well as Steinbeck, Melville, and Conan Doyle (all again), Anton Chekhov, M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Doug Allyn, Bill Byson, Jack London and Mark Twain.    I was an Ancient Studies major as an undergraduate and fell in love with the classics particularly Homer, Sophocles, and Euripides.  I sometimes listen to the Iliad (Robert Fagles translation) on audio-book when I do household chores.    And I read a lot of nonfiction of all eras and locales.  In fact, my nonfiction reading probably inspires my writing much more than other fiction authors do. I certainly read it more often. Killer Angels, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, A Brief History of Time, Ken Burn's The Civil WarHitler and Stalin Parallel LivesThe Rise of Teddy RooseveltWith Dance Shoes in the Siberian Snows, the list of good nonfiction books is near endless for me.  So many books to read, so little time.    I guess the genres are obvious from the list above, but I'd say literary, horror, and detective/thriller, with the occasional science-fiction and war thrown in. And, of course, again: nonfiction, nonfiction, nonfiction.

Are there any authors whose work you champion?
There are a lot of fantastic authors whose work I'd recommend: Karen Charlton, Jenny Milchman, B.A.Morton, John Floyd, Sarah Schofield, Shirley Bozic, Erik Amaya, Ken Pelham, Frances Kay, CMT Stibbe, J.G. Harlond, Kristin Gleeson, Karen Maitland, Ray Philpott, Jon Land, Lucretia Grindle, Bill Bowen, Ronald Sharp, Martyn Bedford, Michael Sears, the excellent authors of the Prometheus Saga and of course (saving the best for last) Jean Gill. Flattery gets you everywhere :)

What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies? I like to go places, often on foot, and see the world. Then I get back on the internet and read about what I've just seen. This usually inspires writing or going to see even more places. It's a cycle of sorts.    I'm also a huge classic film buff (Hitchcock and Kurosawa especially). Other hobbies include rambling incessantly about music, astronomy, or history, museums, storyteller's theater, whitewater rafting and swimming (often suddenly and surprisingly swimming during the whitewater rafting).    I'm a big fan of the Miami Dolphins and San Antonio Spurs.Really useful tips for writers, Bill, and thank you so much for joining me. Let me know when Lenin’s Harem is in print again. I should warn readers, this is a political thriller not concerned with hundreds of women in skimpy clothing…

My Review of Blue Amber

Exceptional thriller: a precision-cut gemFrom the moment the sleigh stops in frozen wasteland, the suspense never lets up as Latvian political prisoner Fricis tries to cheat the death coming for him via Russian guards. If I hadn't been caught up in the sheer adrenalin of the escape bid, I'd have lingered over the quality of the writing. Instead, I was gripped by the story, wanting Fricis to come out alive but never knowing what the outcome would be. I've read plenty of thrillers and adventure stories but few which are so convincing.    William Burton McCormick took me to the Baltic Sea, its politics and its savage beauty, where `if the tides were right, with a bit of swimming here and there, a man could walk near five miles out to sea with little difficulty, never getting his beard wet, often with his knees above the lapping waves.' I came out of the adventure a little dazed but so pleased to have discovered an author to add to my must-read list. This short story packed a much bigger punch than its word count and I can't wait to see whether the quality is sustained over a full-length novel.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Don't make your books into trailer trash

Welcome to Rachel Bostwick, the designer of all my book trailers and also an author in her own right, who's accepted my invitation to share some tips for authors on making pro book trailers.

Rachel's website

Graphic designer by day, aspiring novelist by night, R. L. Wicke explores the fullness of life set against the compelling beauty of a post-apocalyptic Earth. Her writing has been described as rich and filled with reverence for the characters who struggle and fight at the end of one world and the beginning of the next.

She lives in Amish Country, PA with her husband, a million cats, and four feral children. She seeks to help out fellow writers and lovers of fiction by offering her pro design skills and her natural talent for encouragement.

I need intro music for Rachel and she is just the right person to choose it. What would you like as your theme, Rachel, and why?

My husband would choose Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong by the Spin Doctors. He always gives me that wicked look in his eye when it comes on the radio. I would choose Hallelujah by the Newsboys – it’s about having faith when life gets tricky and it’s the one song that I’ve always felt was actually written for me.

The first trailer you made for me, One Sixth of a Gill keeps to your basic template ( which can be ordered from Rachel at fiverr for only $5 ).  

One Sixth of a Gill

Can you talk us through your creative process?
Well, working with you has been amazing, Jean, because as a photographer as well as a writer, you have an eye for beauty. 
(I'm blushing here but thank you for the compliments!)

I try to get a feeling for the tone of the book – is it funny or dramatic or sad or compelling or adventurous? Then I choose music and images that will communicate that directly to potential readers.

What can authors do to help you make more compelling trailers?
Communication is key. Tell me what feeling you want to pass on to the reader so I can work with the right ideas in mind. For example, yesterday a client told me that his book appeals to the Sex and the City crowd. That gave me the exact right idea for choosing music. But even simple things like 'My book is humorous and appeals to women in their twenties,' is helpful.

What makes your work more difficult?
The hardest thing to work with is images that are too small. I can have a basic book trailer done in a single day if I start with the right images. Free images of highest quality can be found on or on Better yet, if you want to make a striking impression, you can buy images on one of many stock photography sites out there. If you feel like that’s too much of a time investment, I am able to choose and even license professional images for you.

Authors can ask you to customize trailers for a few dollars more. In our work together, I’ve really appreciated the way you see the story and show it, using my images and your choice of musical theme. You were especially pleased with this trailer: why? 

Faithful through Hard Times

How did you get into making trailers?
I’ve been a professional graphic designer since my late teens, but I never did much video. When I decided to pursue writing, I made friends with many other authors and was exposed to some book trailers that I felt were poorly done. I started making my own for fun, just to inspire me in writing my drafts. A good friend mentioned that he thought it was something I could do professionally, so I started making them for friends, just to see if I could. And I could :)

Rachel's fivver link for trailer design
You’re a writer too. How do you combine working at home with looking after young children?
Flexibility is the key. My kids are young enough that they still need me all the time. I set my deadlines so that I always have extra time to put something off a day or two. I know that my time with my children is limited, so I try to make sure it’s always ‘yes’ to them and ‘later’ to work. I fail at that sometimes, but it’s my guiding principle.
Tell us about your own writing. 

I am currently penning the first novel in a young adult post-apocalyptic series, titled The 7th Judge, set a century in our future. Three decades past, mankind was wiped to near-extinction overnight by a fatal sleeping sickness. Now a thriving civilization blooms in the ruins of New York City. Lux is one of the Undergrounders, a single father trying to raise his daughter in one of the poverty-stricken subway barrios. When Lux is conscripted by law to be the consort of a high-ranking official, he becomes involved in a series of murders that threaten to shatter the tenuous peace of the Boroughs and destroy his new family.
amazon link
A prequel short story Fairy Tales for the Very Young set in the world of the 7th Judge was published in The Dragon’s Rocketship scifi anthology, The Ship’s Log, available here and a popular free story prequel, titled The Last Firefly and featuring Lux’s daughter, Summer, is available on my website here 

Another story I’m very proud of is Her Betrayer, a horror short with a twist.

What are your plans for 2015?
In the last half of 2014, I helped approximately 40 authors create gorgeous trailers for their books. I’d like to help at least a hundred in the new year! I’ve also added book covers, Kindle formatting, and Facebook banners to my Fiverr store, so I’m looking forward to helping my fellow writers make a great impression in the new year. 

Rachel's book jacket design service on fivver
I also hope to put the finishing touches on the first draft of The 7th Judge and have it professionally edited while raising each of my children to individual brilliance, helping my husband find his true calling in life, and becoming an independent millionaire who owns her own island castle paradise. But I’ll be perfectly satisfied just to keep my children safe and happy and get a little writing done on the side. 

Rachel, thank you so much for joining me on my blog and for making these wonderful trailers for my books. Good luck with all your projects!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Princess' 9th Birthday Celebration

9 years ago today, a puppy was born on a farm in the Pyrenees. 

For some reason, her choosing fell through. She was still playing with her siblings when someone on her breeder’s waiting list phoned for news of the next litter and said ‘We’ll take her.’ 
Jean and Blanche's family at the Neouvielle kennels
The masters-to-be drove for 5 hours to fetch her and 5 hours home. Then they suffered hours of Béarnaise folk songs howled until no-one could bear any more and a compromise on sleeping-place was negotiated (the puppy chose her place and the people got some sleep). And so Blanche-Neige de Néouvielle arrived like an avalanche into our lives.  

You always think that having had dogs prepares you for the next one. It doesn’t. If you’re lucky enough to have known the friendship of an old dog, you are doubly unprepared for the next puppy, lulled into a false sense of expertise. It’s like childbirth; if anyone remembered what it was really like, no-one would do it twice. And with giant dogs, everything is bigger.

Blanche is the only dog I’ve known who didn’t just devour books; she chose them by sniffing along the bookshelves. She had a penchant for Terry Pratchett but if she could sniff out a book one of us was currently reading, and chew the last pages up on the lawn before we finished it, she was in ecstasy. Just when we’d established some basic principles of living together, we collected her friend, Bételgeuse de la Plaine d'Astrée. And that’s when the fun really began. You’ll note that the humans look much younger in the early photos.


Official Photo - John with the puppies 2006
Before allowing us to take her puppy away, Blanche’s breeder, Nadine, asked us, ‘What sort of life are you offering her?’ I’ve written about Nadine and her Pyreneans, in The Dog who cries Wolf (One Sixth of a Gill) and she can be fierce on her dogs’ behalf.

I can answer Nadine now; this is the life Blanche has offered us, for 9 crazy years.

We prepared for our puppy.

Daiquiri preparing to train her 4th and 5th Pyrenean Mountain Dogs
The puppy had things to learn too.

So that's a cat!
Like most aristocratic demoiselles, Blanche went to finishing school in Switzerland. Here she says thank you to top dog trainer Michel Hasbrouck, at the end of 2 days of Dressage Tendresse (I translated his bestseller into English as Gentle Dog Training)
Blanche and Michel
The only time I've ever dressed up a dog was when Arsenal reached the Champions' League Final and I became over-excited.
Thierry Blanche Henry
The dynamic duo grew up together... and grew... up. 

... finishing at 50kg and 70kg. Weighing a 6 month old male Pyrenean is fun.           

The games Bétel invented with Blanche lived on after we lost him to health problems and visitors can still enjoy being ambushed by white lightning. She hides behind the hedge then surprise-bombs them.

In her middle years Blanche perfected her modelling skills for my istock portfolio and can be found on many leaflets and websites, the face of pet care and dog training, both on her own and with her friend Lou.

When I told John my idea for this shoot, his get-out clause was 'You'll never get the dog to do it.' Blanche gave an Oscar-winning performance and I love this family portrait. She was actually obeying a long down-stay but the expression shows total immersion in the role. This photo features in a French article about homeless people and their dogs 

Blanche has welcomed two shelter dogs into her life, always confident in her relationship with us. We've holidayed together and we've grieved together. A year ago she had a stomach torsion, an emergency which is usually fatal. The operation was successful, despite her trashing her stitches and her cage the next day at the vet's, and refusing to eat until I was summoned to take charge. 

Blanche and Sherlock on holiday, Lac Ste Croix
She has a BIG character and an even bigger sense of fun.She inspired the character of Snow in Someone to Look Up To and committed some of the funny crimes attributed to Sirius. On one occasion, Bétel barked in the middle of the night to alert me; I threw on my dressing-gown, expecting burglars, and I found the door to the spare bedroom ajar. Blanche was curled up on the sofa in there, tucking into a box of dog treats she'd filched from the wardrobe. She still tests me out and she's still happy when I win. Dogs!

Her latest modelling credits include the book trailer for One Sixth of a Gill which also includes some of her photos; and a cameo role in the trailer for Someone to Look Up To, acting Sirius' brother. If Belle in the famous film can be played by a male, I don't see why my star actress can't change gender if required.


She is even going to be a pin-up girl. The 1st edition of the new International Magazine for Pyrs will be printed in March - with Blanche and Bétel featuring on the cover. You can see Blanche. The beautiful male featured on the left is called Romeo.

The magazine will also feature Someone to Look Up To in serial form. Check it out!

Subscribe to Pyr International Magazine

Happy 9th birthday, princess.

Among top dog books since 2013. 
'A wonderful dog story'

Amazon link

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Scratching the Surface - scraperboard art

Painting with blades is my kind of art. When looking for illustrations for  One Sixth of a Gill, I rediscovered the scraperboards (also known as scratchboards) that I created years ago.  I liked them but I didn’t expect that anyone else would. My Editor, an avid art collector, thought differently, so I let her be the judge. I also revisited the important things in life, as I once saw them when I envisaged

The Human Condition

Romantic Love

and my teddy bear, Angela

(I still have no idea why I called a male teddy-bear Angela when I was 7. I do remember that I knew he was a boy and that Angela was his name. These truths were self-evident. Of course I still have him.)

Making the book and receiving comments from readers who found the etchings ‘intriguing’ and ‘thought-provoking’ made me want to pick up a blade again. After all these years, I wanted a practice board (and the conventional scratch tool) so I put some pre-designed boards on my wish-list and this was my birthday present – a kit scratch-board ‘suitable for 8+ year olds’. Perfect.

Then I remembered Michaelangelo. One of my favourite stories is how he acquired a block of marble that was cheaper because some other sculptor had started work on it and screwed up. Michaelangelo took someone else’s failure and created David. That’s how I feel about some of the children I taught, about adopted dogs, about so many things – see the potential and try to bring it out.

So, what would you have turned this into? Rainbow-coloured butterflies is your starting point…

I’m no Michaelangelo but I wanted to personalize my practice-board for my own pleasure so I took a photo of the design, turned it upside down, looked at it and saw it differently. I used layers in Photoshop to cover up the bits of design I didn’t want and keep those I did. Incidentally, Picasso used layers to create Guernica – the physical sheets he placed one over the other can still be seen in Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofia.

Then I painted over the unwanted design elements with Indian ink (encre de Chine in French, an interesting switch in country of origin, and which makes perfect sense as it’s used for calligraphy). I scratched away like a nesting mouse, moving from painted design to my variations. Unfortunately, once exposed, the rainbow background looked nothing whatsoever like the beautiful graduated shades on the packet front. My design did not work in stark rainbow stripes.

Back to Photoshop, a monochrome conversion, some tinkering with brightness and here it is. I’m not saying it’s art but I like it and it was fun to make. Now I’m foraging round the house for scratch tools – I’ve already stolen the wire wool from the kitchen.

Selfie in Couple Portrait  

You’ll see the teddy-bear again in the book trailer for One Sixth of a Gill


available from amazon

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The story behind ... 'The Gynaecologist's Wife'

'What on earth made you write The Gynaecologist's Wife?' is a question that readers keep asking me so this is the story behind the dark, sexy poem from my new book  One Sixth of a Gill, a collection of shorts. 

Like all the women I know, I hate going to the gynaecologist, even for a routine smear test; correction, especially for a routine smear. Even on those occasions I don't feel physical pain, I feel humiliated and assaulted. Add to that the embarrassment of being greeted by a doctor astounded, and then relieved, that I am a woman. As I now live in France and am called Jean, French people all assume that I am a man and then, when they meet me, they wonder whether I'm transexual. I'm not. 

Be all this as it may, I am old enough to now have my strategies for dealing with what I consider to be a necessary evil. So, during an appointment at the gynaecologist, I'm in the usual embarrassing situation and pretending I'm a corpse in one of the CSI programmes we watch on TV. How do the actors keep their eyes wide and starey for so long? Stay so floppy-limbed? Hold their breath? I just don't have the skills and of course the gynaecologist himself wrecks the illusion by speaking to me and expecting me to look at weirdness on a computer screen and reply. 

I would prefer a female gynaecologist but that's not an option. How does he keep any sexual curiosity about a woman's body? I wonder when he spends all day doing this? I think the routine procedure where the patient removes her undergarments behind a screen, out of the doctor's sight, is supposed to keep the procedure clinical. But does it? Human sexuality is complex. And then I imagine what it must be like for his wife. What she must wonder. 

The poem wrote itself in my head during that appointment and, for once, I felt completely in control, not in the least bit affected by the medical goings-on, because I was fascinated by the intimate story of the gynaecologist and his wife. I sometimes see the two of them shopping together and smile because I know about their secret life. I will never again try to become invisible to avoid saying hello socially to the specialist in 'women's problems'. (Don't men have unmentionable problems? Don't they need a specialist? Or are men's problems so unmentionable they don't even have a euphemism?)  

My gynaecologist is actually a very nice, professional man who has no idea what goes on in my head. And of course that's where the best part of sex takes place...

The Gynaecologist’s Wife

The problem’s not as you would think
his lust for clients but

his clinical detachment
naked in my bed.

And then I bought the screen,
I called him ‘Doctor’,

dropped my knickers out of sight
and offered him my full blown rose.

I asked my love - as women always have -
Am I all right? Am I as good as them? Am I?

And he said, yes, oh yes
and did without the gloves.

Why put a photo of a gangster to accompany the poem?

For me, one theme of the poem is the way a couple plays roles in their intimate relations so I liked this photo for the way the subject challenges the viewer/reader to enter into a film noir scenario. Who do you imagine you are when you are looking at the photo?

My Editor and I had many disagreements over the pairing of images with text; I found her too literal and she found me too bizarre in interpretation. We worked it out and the images which found their way into the book were all ones we both thought would provoke an emotional reaction, and pose questions about their relationships to the text. For us, there was always a connection, but we both hoped that readers would be interested enough to find a variety of interpretations - and that seems to be the case.

If you would like to hear 'the story behind' any of my work, just post a request in the comments or mail me and I'll include it in my programme.

amazon link

The Gynaecologist's Wife was first published in the anthology Night Balancing (Blinking Eye)