Being chosen to be one of Richard and Judy’s WH Smith Book Club picks is a really big deal. HUGE. The competition is ridiculously fierce. When Fede, my lovely editor At Two Roads first emailed to tell me that THE KEEPER OF LOST THINGS had been chosen, I misunderstood. I thought it had been chosen to be put forward for the selection process. I was delighted. Really pleased. I told Fede how pleased I was. But I sensed somehow, that he didn’t think I was pleased enough. So – I sought clarification and the penny finally dropped. The selection process had already taken place. I was in. KEEPER was a RICHARD AND JUDY AUTUMN BOOK CLUB PICK!!! Once this information had finally found its way into my brain, my reaction was much more proportionate to the magnitude of such astonishing news. I whooped! More than once. I was alone at the time, so I told my dog, Squadron Leader Timothy Bear. More than once. But there was a catch. It was a secret and it had to stay a secret until the paperback launch on 10th August. I wasn’t to tell a soul (except for Timothy) Three months is a very, very long time to keep that kind secret. People would ask me how the book was doing and I’d have to bite my tongue and say, ‘Fine, thanks.’ There were days when I thought I would burst and Timothy got sick to death of hearing about it. I was asked to write an extra chapter for the Richard and Judy paperback edition, and a piece for the Book Club blog. And then, in July, I actually got to meet Richard and Judy and record a podcast with them (I’m not going to talk about that here – it definitely deserves its own blog post, and will be the next one I write) An author’s life can be pretty damn amazing!
Bear with me on this one – I appreciate that being attacked by crows doesn’t seem like much of a positive, but in my strange and wonderful world it is. It is, in fact, fortuitous retrospective research. You see in my next book (title to be revealed very soon, but something a bit like THE PECULIAR MUSEUM OF FANCY RED SHOES – allegedly!) there are crows. They don’t have a leading role; they’re supporting characters and they’re on the side of the heroes not the villains. Both my agent and my editor are very good people, but they are of the opinion that crows are ‘creepy’. I think they’ve been watching too many movies. My fictional crows are loyal and brave. I did some research (of course) using books and the internet before writing about these birds. I discovered that they are fierce, intelligent, loyal, and have even been known to bring gifts to those who feed them regularly (not flowers or bottles of Prosecco, but buttons or bits of ribbon or string). And today I had some practical experience. I was attacked by two crows who took it in turns to dive bomb me and claw at my head. It hurt. I bled. (I didn’t realise I was bleeding until I got home, so apologies to anyone who saw a blond woman with a big splodge of blood on her head walking a dog this morning. Please don’t be alarmed. I’m fine) But their motives were honourable. I was walking Squadron Leader Timothy Bear when I heard loud cawing. I thought it was crows in the trees, but then realised it was coming from on the ground. Well, from the gutter actually. A baby crow had fallen from its nest and was sitting in the gutter waiting to be run over by the next bus. The one slightly critical thing I will say about crows is that their nests can be a bit ramshackle, and being so high-up could really do with a safety rail to stop the chicks tumbling out. But tumble this one had, and if I didn’t move it, it was definitely going to get flattened by a car or bus (what is it with me and birds – first the pigeon and now a crow!) I picked it up and looked around for somewhere safer and off the ground for it to wait for it parents, but mummy and daddy crow were watching and clearly thought I was about to kidnap their offspring. They both dive bombed me, cawing furiously, whilst I scuttled along clutching their bedraggled baby. The chick was struggling, squawking and trying to peck me, and Timothy was giving me one of his ‘what the hell do you think you’re doing now?’ looks. The only nearby place that I could find to deposit the chick was on top of someone’s garden hedge. At least it was off the ground, and if it fell off the hedge and into the garden, it wouldn’t be near the road. One of the crows stayed near to where I had left its chick, but the other escorted me down the road, still swooping at me until it was sure that I wasn’t coming back. These crows were devoted to their baby and were prepared to do anything they could to protect it. Definitely heroes in my book (literally!) Sadly, I have no idea if the chick will survive but I’m keeping my fingers crossed. Apparently it is common for them to leave the nest before they can fly, and their parents are very attentive (tell me about it!) and feed them for several weeks until they can cope on their own. You shouldn’t move them unless they are in immediate danger, and then only to the nearest point of safety (I Googled what to do when I got home – fortunately I got it right!) The hedge belongs to a member of our book club, so I emailed her to tell her about the chick. I’m hoping she’ll keep an eye out for marauding cats…
Part of this crazy and wonderful journey that began when THE KEEPER OF LOST THINGS sold across the world, has been seeing my words translated into so many different languages. As an author, I love words. I love discovering new words. Give me a big, fat dictionary and it will keep me happy for hours. On Friday, Mr Peardews Sammlung der verlorenen Dinge will be published by Ullstein in Germany. In France, it’s Le Gardien des choses perdue, and in Norway Vokteren Av Tapte Ting. Tapte Ting! Doesn’t that sound lovely? Doesn’t it just roll off the tongue?! I’ve tried to learn to say as many of my foreign titles as possible. The South Korean, Russian and Serbian editions have proved a bit tricky (different alphabets!) but I do know that in Russian my first name is Pym, and in the Czech Republic my surname is Hoganova. I’ve also had the privilege of working one-to-one with some of my translators and I’ve been completely in awe of their care and attention to detail – their desire not only to translate the words, but also to capture the spirit of the story. I’ve had emails at all times of the day and night from these lovely people, grappling with interpretations of ‘folly fonts’, ‘dancing drome’ and ‘sausage rollovers’, and they have, without exception, been an absolute joy to work with.
I’m often asked where I get my characters from – how I decide on their names and are they based on real people. I also get asked ‘Am I in your novel?’ and the answer to that is always ‘No!’ – or at least ‘Not so that you’d recognise yourself!’ Not surprisingly for an author, I’m a people watcher. I love train stations, airports and waiting rooms where I can sit quietly and observe. I’m also a shameless eavesdropper, and I’m always astonished at the things that people are perfectly happy to discuss in places where it’s obvious they can be overheard. Hairdressing salons are another great place to watch and listen. People tell their hairdressers almost anything – it’s like a confessional! I don’t base my characters on people I know, but sometimes strangers that I come across will spark the idea for a particular character. It could be their appearance, their voice or perhaps one specific characteristic. I keep a notebook (yes, I know – I keep notebooks for everything!) for ideas for characters, regardless of whether or not they will fit into the book I’m currently working on. Earlier this week I had to take my mum for a hospital appointment and while we were in the waiting room I noticed that a very beautiful elderly lady dressed in dark velvet and turquoise sequinned sandals kept staring at me and whispering to herself. Eventually, she came and sat next me and, stoking the sleeve of my jacket, she whispered ‘Princess. You are a princess.’ I should explain that the jacket I was wearing has a good deal of gold braiding and silver studs on the sleeves ( in fact, at The Stratford Literary Festival last month, it was much admired by Paddy Ashdown in the green room!) When the lady left the waiting room, she said to me, ‘Goodbye, princess from London. Take care.’ It made my day, and she made it into my notebook. On another occasion, I was in my dentist’s waiting room and a very dapper gentleman came in and spoke to the receptionist. There had been a mix-up with his appointment time, and she offered him a later slot. I’ll remember his reply forever. ‘I’m terribly sorry – I can’t do that. I’ve a plane waiting to take me to the Bahamas.’ He wasn’t joking. Another one for my notebook! I also use photograph books and photos for inspiration, and when my friend Peter, who owns the Eagle Bookshop in Bedford, acquired a huge collection of press photos I was in heaven! Cemeteries are my go-to place for names – so much more interesting than baby name books or websites. And finally, what about that old chestnut about writers getting their revenge on people who’ve upset them by including them as villains in their books? Is it true? Now that would be telling…
As an author and self-confessed magpie, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that some of the things I collect are books, and I have a passion for antiquarian children’s books – particularly those illustrated by Edmund Dulac and Arthur Rackham. The first in my collection was one given to my mum as a Christmas present when she was just 8 years old. But whilst having a sort out the other day (what that actually means is ‘while I was moving stuff from one place to another’ – I didn’t actually organise it any better or get rid of anything!) I came across two books which I had forgotten all about. Years ago, I used to run a stall at local antiques fairs with my dad. It was more of a hobby than a profit-making enterprise, and any profit we did make, we invariably spent on more stuff! At one of these fairs, I bought two books from a fellow dealer (at a very reasonable price) and these are the two books that I rediscovered yesterday. Both are notebooks with illustrations. They are historical and physical versions of Facebook with contributions ‘posted’ by the owners’ friends – illustrations, poems, amusing quotations and words of advice. The first was written in the 1800’s – the earliest dated entry I have found is 23rd March 1831 – and contains this beautiful handwriting and hand-painted illustrations
The second book was given as a Christmas present to a person unknown by Dick in 1907. It contains comic poetry, watercolour pictures and drawings and words of advice (both serious and tongue-in-cheek) from numerous contributors – presumably friends of the book’s owner. Each entry is signed an dated. Both books are absolute treasures and each is a snapshot of friendships of the past – Facebook on real paper pages!
It’s no secret that I love my job. In fact, it feels a bit of cheek to call it a job when I love doing it so much. But then, I do have to earn a living, and I probably work longer hours as an author than I have in any other job. Yesterday, I was looking forward to a whole day working on one of my books. A whole day in my own little world. It wasn’t to be. Yesterday was a rotten tomato of a day. It was as though I’d been promised champagne and given flat lemonade (with a dead fly in it for good measure). There was one interruption after the other. I was called out to give a lift home to someone who, when I arrived, told me he didn’t actually need a lift after all. When I got back, I couldn’t find a single parking space in my street and had to park round the corner. Back home, the large dog (elderly, still gorgeous, but doesn’t always make it outside in time) hadn’t made it outside in time. Cue for carpet shampoo, rubber gloves and half an hour spent on my knees. I actually sat down at my desk just after midday. Minutes later, a courier came to the door to deliver a parcel. In an attempt to restrain the large dog, our heads clashed. The large dog has a head like a brick. He didn’t even blink. I saw stars and almost passed out. The resulting headache was horrible and it still lingers today along with a nice, purple bruise. I didn’t get much work done and by the time the husband arrived home I had turned into a thoroughly grumpy goblin.
I received a message via Instagram. (I’ve only recently realised that I can receive direct messages on Instagram, so apologies for all the late replies!) The message was from someone who calls herself ‘a crazy fan living in outback Australia’. She told me that she had read The Keeper of Lost Things and absolutely loved it. She said lots of lovely things including that she was really looking forward to my next book, but one thing she said struck home. She said that she loved the fact that KEEPER had a happy ending because ‘Real life is hard enough’. Yesterday real life sucked, but her message turned my day right back from flat lemonade into a champagne cocktail with a sparkler. I have been lucky enough to receive messages of praise and support for KEEPER from Canada, the US, Australia, Czech Republic and the UK and each and everyone of them are special and very much appreciated, but yesterday the one from my ‘crazy fan’ half way across the world in the Australian outback completely made my day!
Following the launch party on the 26th January, we held a book signing in The Eagle Bookshop on Saturday 28th January. Fortunately, there were some cakes left over from the party to use as bribes, but in the end, bribery was unnecessary. Peter – the bookshop proprietor and my friend and writing partner of many years – very kindly and for the first time ever agreed to stock copies of a new novel – THE KEEPER OF LOST THINGS! The Eagle Bookshop is an antiquarian book shop and its usual stock includes rare first editions and beautifully bound vintage volumes, so it was a privilege for KEEPER to be rubbing dust jackets with such lofty company! Pete’s wife Liz, who is training to be a book binder, made me a beautiful pair of earrings – perfect miniature copies of The Keeper of Lost Things – especially for the occasion. Lots of lovely people turned up, including one lady called Julie Harris who had contacted me previously via Instagram (or maybe Twitter?) Julie had been on holiday in Menorca last summer, and she had found a pre-publication proof copy of KEEPER at Tramontano Park, the hotel where she was staying. ( Incidentally – the shoes I wore for the signing matched the cover of the proof perfectly, but I digress…) Julie read it, loved it (her words not mine!) and contacted me to tell me the story of how she came across the book. I was so pleased to finally meet Julie at the book signing! She wore her sunshine yellow coat in honour of my character, Sunshine, and I have promised to talk to her writers’ circle (The Tring writers’ Circle) at The Eagle Bookshop later on this year. You may wonder why, included in the photos that accompany this post, there is a picture of someone’s house, with a hazy figure seated at the upstairs window. This lady came to the signing, bought the book, took it home and began reading immediately. From my seat in the book shop I could see her reading my book. It was a special moment.
I might be slightly biased, but I think this was one of the best launch parties ever! It was so special for me to hold the launch in a shop which has become the home of my writing, and also to be able to fill the window of the shop with all the lost things that I had found whilst writing KEEPER. We decorated the inside of the shop with vintage teapots and cups and saucers in honour of ‘the lovely cup of tea’ and there were roses and rose petals everywhere. The wonderful Blushing Cook, aka Sammi-Jo Gascoyne, made some exquisite little cakes, decorated with lost things and tiny images of the book cover and there was lots of wine and general merriment. I was genuinely touched by all the people who turned out on a cold, Thursday night in January to support me and the launch of KEEPER. Some of them were old friends who have been with me from the start on what has been a long and bumpy road to publication, some were loyal friends and customers of the bookshop, and some I had never met before, but have encouraged and supported me on social media. My shoes were bought especially for the occasion, and for those of you who have read the book, you will understand why!
Photos by Adrian Bullers.