Anyone for Pie?

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is far and away the most successful novel set in Guernsey. Although there are easily two dozen works of fiction using the German Occupation of the islands as their background, this is the stand-out commercial hit. Curiously it was written by an American who had only made a single unplanned visit to Guernsey.

The book is the only novel by American author Mary Ann Shaffer. She made a brief stop in Guernsey in 1976 and became fog-bound at the airport; a familiar hazard to island residents. Browsing the bookshop, she learned about the German Occupation of 1940 to 1945. It was two decades before she finally began her Guernsey novel, and it was accepted for publication in 2006. Her health deteriorated, so the final editing was carried out by her niece Annie Barrows who was already a published children’s author. Mary Ann Shaffer died in 2008 before the book was published.

It is an ‘epistolary novel’, in that the story is told entirely through letters between the characters. In post-war 1946, English journalist Juliet Ashton strikes up a correspondence with islander Dawsey Adams one and becomes intrigued by the quaintly titled Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. She travels to Guernsey to meet members of the society, and a story of love, tragedy and hope emerges against the background of an island people surviving almost five years of enemy occupation emerges. For the uninitiated, potato peel was used as ersatz pie crust when food began to run short. I have never tried it, but it was apparently rather nasty.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was an immediate hit, especially in the USA. It spent 11 weeks in the New York Times bestseller list and reached the number 1 position on 2nd August 2009.

Reviews were favorable; The Times said “Every now and again, a book comes along that is simple yet effective, readable yet memorable. This is one such delight … It is a uniquely humane vision of inhumanity; one to lift even the most cynical of spirits”

To date it has sold over 5 million copies worldwide in over 30 territories and has proved particularly popular with book clubs. It was planned for me to interview Annie Barrows at the Guernsey Literary Festival, but scheduling clashes mean that it’s not to be.

A film adaption has been on the cards for a few years, with different directors and stars mooted. It finally takes form this spring, directed by Mike Newell, starring Lily James as English author Juliet Ashton and Michiel Huisman as islander Dawsey Adams. The film will be in cinemas from April 20th 2018, with a special Premiere taking place in Guernsey in addition to the World Premiere in London. It remains to be seen whether filmgoers also have the taste for pie.

 

 

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A Writer’s Year

January is a hectic time at Guernsey Museum, as we turn around all the temporary exhibition spaces in three weeks. For me it means checking and proofing all the wall text, and numerous press releases. New Year’s Day is also when I like to pitch into the new book – NRT in the case of 2017

 

In an ideal world I’d skip February. It is a miserable month whose only redeeming feature is its brevity. I escaped to Barbados and hand-wrote some major plot twists of my new novel by the pool.

 

March saw the splendid Alderney Literary Festival, where I talked about ‘Glint” and signed a few copies. Mixing with the other authors of historical fiction/ non-fic/ biography was the highpoint though.

 

By April the literary year was hotting up, and I was off to Edinburgh for the annual conference of the Crime Writers’ Association. As usual it included talks by ex-coppers and criminologists on real-life cases; grim stuff like the ‘World’s End Murders’.

May saw both Bristol Crimefest (where I didn’t speak but met plenty of old friends) and the Guernsey Literary Festival (where I did both). I also interviewed Clare MackIntosh on her new book ‘I See You’; great fun, and only the second time I’d done a panel interview.

 

June’s big excitement was an emergency flight to Alderney to rescue what we could of an Iron Age burial ground sliced through by a JCB. Two days’ frantic work produced a wealth of finds that would keep us busy beyond the end of the year.

I was also back in Alderney in July, working ahead of a micro-excavator within the Nunnery Roman Fort. Enough evidence was uncovered to tempt me back in 2018.

 

It was my third visit to the Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate in July. The last two had been blisteringly hot, but this time Yorkshire was grey and rainy. By now NRT was into its fourth draft, ready to start talking confidently about it to my crime-writing colleagues and send it to my erstwhile editor for a critique.

 

 

 

 

In late August, I went on holiday leaving Draft 5 in the hands of beta readers. I got off the Rock and headed for the wide open spaces of Wyoming, chalking up something over 2,000 miles in a fortnight. Plenty of iconic sites, but the ‘Great American Eclipse’ was an experience never to be forgotten; in Guernsey, Wyoming of all places.

Writing from a small island comes with its own challenges; 100 miles of water separates me from the mainland’s literary conventions, book fairs and library readings. In 2017 I took as many opportunities I could to combine a trip to the UK with a little literary interaction. September offered  a chance to drop into the small but perfectly formed ‘Morecambe  and Vice’ (“bring me some crime”).

 

The big October highlight was of course the CWA Daggers Awards Dinner, the Oscars of the crime-writing world. It was lovely sitting on the ‘New Blood’ table meeting the hopeful nominees and the eventual winner; I imagine we’ll hear more from all of them.

 

November was the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Cambrai, which features strongly in ‘Glint of Light on Broken Glass’. I engaged in a month of subtle promotion of the book on Facebook, and by nudging local shops. Interest in the battle in Guernsey had been minimal three years ago, but via a programme of lectures, museum displays, parades and living history events it was pushed into the forefront of Guernsey’s year.

So we came to December. NRT was finished, the final polish to Draft 7 being hammered out on my mother’s dining room table when I should have been socialising. Having discussed the idea the previous Christmas with London agent Annette Crossland. I sent off the manuscript and in a hectic couple of weeks I was signed up with A for Authors agency. Here we are celebrating at the CWA Christmas party. A pretty good end to 2017.

And the follow-up to NRT? The first page will go down on New Year’s Day. I’m also working on an artistic biography, our ‘Roman Guernsey’ book may finally see the light of day and ‘The Story of Guernsey’ will be published in German.  A Merry Christmas and successful New Year to fellow writers, readers and friends everywhere.

Fire Without Smoke

I don’t smoke. I just don’t get it, so my lead characters don’t smoke either. You might think that old hippie Jeffrey Flint might have done the odd roll-up in his time, but if so he keeps quiet about it.

wine-drinkerIn my crime reading pile, I have noticed that most fictional detectives smoke to a fault. Its part of the hard-boiled image, maybe. Often I suspect it reflects the writer’s own lifestyle – indeed many writers are shown posing with a cigarette for their publicity photographs which strikes me as distinctly odd. If I were to display my vices in publicity shots, I’d be holding a half-eaten Toblerone, a gluten-free brownie or glass of Chateauneuf du Pape. None send the message that I’m a rebel or a thinker or sophisticate, just that I’m probably overweight.

So to those detectives, pluckily cheating death by shooting, stabbing, car smash or fiendish trap yet stalked by Reaper nonetheless. The smoking trope is strange – pipe smoking is somehow homely, and the Americans seem to think there’s charm in chomping cigars. Anti-smokers are cast as tight-asses. With widespread smoking bans in offices, the overflowing ashtray is now the mark of period fiction and ‘dates’ otherwise contemporary novels. There’s a curious trend in contemporary American TV dramas to portray smoking as a cute adventure, which jars with reality. When we’re talking gangsters and the underclass, yes, but not 90% of urban professionals.

I am bored of reading about characters who have to go out and buy their cigarettes, fiddle with them, light up and stub out. Over the same timeframe, they don’t go to the toilet, scratch their ear or an one of a hundred other personal habits they might exhibit. A Nordic Noir I read this year would have been two chapters shorter if the hero had been a nonsmoker. The stressed detective may also drink coffee and hard spirits, but any other choice of drink is used as character shorthand. Usually it shows affectation, or weakness. Banana smoothie, Earl Grey tea or a snack-pack of Trail Mix anyone?

Partly to poke fun at the trope, Flint and Tyrone drink diet coke, eat Mars Bars and crisps. Their weakness is real ale or cheap wine and maybe the occasional takeaway. Some of the villains and minor characters smoke, but the books are mainly populated with the educated middle class, increasingly health-conscious and lifestyle aware. I just don’t want to wear the print off my fingers typing all that smoking routine. Given that several fondly remembered  relations were killed by the tobacco industry I also don’t want to lend it any glamour.

So what about ‘Glint of Light on Broken Glass’?, set in an era when cancer was barely understood by doctors let alone ordinary working men. We know that tobacco was a major crutch for the men in the trenches, and I’ve even heard the Great War could not have been endured without it which is a curious thought. The Channel Islands’ hardest fought sporting event ‘The Muratti’ was sponsored by a local cigarette company. So I allow smoking to be there in the background – it happens, like eating and drinking but I don’t make a fetish of it.

 

 

“Ingrid wants more sex”

Okay, I know this is a family blog but  we’re going to talk about sex this week (stop sniggering at the back!). The book I’m working now on requires a frank and realistic approach to sex scenes, but has led me to look back on my oversexed hero of novels past.

Jeffrey Flint is a bit of a lad, indeed some would say ‘womaniser’. He’s not manipulative, he doesn’t have any kind of plan, but he simply loves women. Young, smart, fun and politically on-message what’s not to like? Except he’s a little too ‘summer of love’ to suggest he’s capable of commitment. Not for Flint is that long-suffering spouse to return to after each adventure, to ground him in reality. He remains a free spirit.

So, Flint flits from woman to woman, between and often within books. When I was discussing Byron’s Shadow over lunch with Ingrid – my editor at the time – she suggested the books needed more sex. I went home and wrote a card, which I pinned on the slanting ceiling of my garret – ‘Ingrid wants more sex’.

But in the end I pulled my punches. Mummy porn wasn’t mainstream at that time and I feared writing purple-prose laden bad sex.  I wanted also to avoid  clinical  scenes that read like model aeroplane instructions, viz  ‘place axle (12) in wheel hub (13) but do not glue’. . We’re all adults and we all know what happens. We also know that it takes a good deal longer than the 37 seconds shown in the average TV naughty scene. To relate a full passionate encounter blow-by-blow would take pages and pages and be cringingly dull (to me). Even worse where Maddy Crowe is my viewpoint character.

Then I always wonder how much of an author’s sex scenes give away about their own love life, their own frustrations and fantasies? There’s a lot of personal anecdote woven into the Flint books, and I have name-checked a couple of my friends but no characters are based on real people. Still there’s a worry that the curious might strive to identify the ‘real’ Vikki, Lisa, Willow, Maddy, A1, Chrissie and the rest of the cast. In end I hint, give a flavour and no more. I know what is going on, and the reader can fill in the blanks. Flint’s sex life is funny, quirky, offbeat and impulsive. Its also an essential component of the plots rather than being merely there to titillate.

A reader once asked me about a beach scene in Byron’s Shadow when Flint and Lisa are together. ‘What did they actually do?’ she asked. I just smiled.

 

 

 

Author Vanishes!

Crime writer Jason Foss has vanished. In a move reminiscent of 1984, or the more paranoid Roman emperors his name has been erased from e-books on sale. Only a few hard-to-find first edition hardbacks remain of his five archaeological thrillers featuring offbeat lecturer Dr Jeffrey Flint.

Suspicion falls immediately on his alter ego, Jason Monaghan, whose name now emblazons the Flint series. Jason explains his motives for this decisive move:

“When I wrote my first Flint books, I was also writing heavyweight archaeology textbooks under my own name and did not want to cause any confusion between my fiction and non-fiction output. I was also aware that publishers did not want more than one book per author per year, and ultimately I might develop a second pen name in a different style to publish in parallel. Foss was easier to spell than Monaghan too, and harder to mis-pronounce in bookshops.

“The internet has however made pen-names almost irrelevant. Unless you take enormous care to remain anonymous, the rest of the world can find out your real name in 0.15 of a second. A more serious problem is that the more connected your output, the easier it is for search engines to make links between them, raising your ranking. Having two or more names fights against connectivity. Then of course there is the question of what to call your website, facebook page, Amazon author page and so on: do you have one per name?

“I was for a while the first or second ‘Jason Foss’ on Google but gradually slipped below various dopplegangers as social media use ballooned. The real me meanwhile was always in the top ten. My archaeology and Museum work entailed a steady stream of papers, and frequent newspaper, radio, magazine and  local TV slots. Monaghan became more visible than Foss.

“This year I published Glint of Light on Broken Glass under my own name, as its initial market would be in Guernsey where I’m well known. After a discussion with Endeavour Press it was decided to rebrand the whole backlist, creating a satisfying body of crime and historical fiction, archaeology and local history. I’m now working to bring all my internet channels together too.

“So Jason Foss is no more. Farewell, old mate.”

 

 

 

 

A Sense of Place

In a recent debate on a writers’ forum the question was asked whether you had to actually have visited a place to use it as a setting for a novel. My answer to this is both yes and no.

YES if the place is well known, such as London, and many of your readers are expected to Glint Coverhave been there or read other books set there. I won’t say ‘seen movies set there’ as TV and film often use places far removed from the location of the plot to double as the setting. They will also play fast and loose with geography to fit the pace (car chases often do this if you watch too closely).

It is very important if the setting is almost a character in itself, such as Cephalonia in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Intimate knowledge becomes essential, which is why I worked so hard at getting the feel of Guernsey right in Glint of Light on Broken Glass. It is also why many ‘locals’ dislike books set in the islands by people who have been here only briefly, if ever; they miss the essence of the place. The Flint books were enhanced by my being very familiar with York, Kent, London and Hadrian’s Wall.

NO You can get away with glibly setting something ‘in London’ if you just mean tourist byrons-shadow-2016London or a non-specific suburb where detail on the ground is not important. I had Flint visit Glastonbury and Bath in Lady in the Lake, even though I’ve never made it to either. I also set much of the action for Byron’s Shadow in Nauplion, which I planned to visit before completing the book but only made the trip a decade later. I had been to many other places in Greece and researched carefully so ‘my’ Nauplion is not so different from the ‘real’ one I finally visited, although both exist in my mind. The Greek dig is an amalgam of my digging experience elsewhere on the continent – it was hot and tiring everywhere.

Of course none of your readers will have been to first century Rome, which is helpful to writers of historical fiction such as Lindsey Davis who haven’t been there either. A dedicated historical novelist can out-research most of the audience then only faces the challenge of making this long-lost world live and breathe. Science Fiction and Fantasy writers have even more freedom, but possibly even more challenge. Not only has the writer not been there, but the place does not exist – or at least not in the form portrayed. This is where a writer such as Tolkien needs skill to make us feel we are walking under the shadows of Mirkwood or struggling into the Misty Mountains. It helps if the writer uses familiar references, such as a hilltop castle, so the reader can start to imagine this made-up world. Writers of alt-history and steampunk novels invert this idea so that our familiar world is twisted into something that does not exist.

In the end it is that cliché ‘sense of place’. Without overdosing on adjective and purple prose, the writer must make the setting feel real. If the readers have never been to Samarkand, Deadwood or Westeros, they must end the book feeling as though they have.

I Canna Break the Laws of Physics

It was Scotty’s iconic line from Star Trek, which of course broke the laws of physics every episode. This goes beyond Sci-Fi though and into the world of thrillers and adventure, whether books, TV or films.

The special effects geek in ‘When the Dust Settles’ explains to Maddy that if a film director wants a man thrown backwards by a shot from a puny 0.38, he’s not going to object. As a sometime scientist, the laws of physics as employed in fiction are important in maintaining my suspension of disbelief. All fiction requires this. We need to believe that lone investigator can crack the case that has the police baffled, that heroic archaeologist can find that lost city when everyone else has failed, that secret agent can overpower the evil genius’ goons. Even if we need to believe in magic, dragons, aliens or vampires, that belief comes easier if the non-fantastic elements of the plot match our own experience of universal laws.

Which is where physics come in. Action sequences can be difficult to portray in books. I sometimes think ‘who’s been punched? Whose hand is on whose throat? Where’s the knife now?’ so tend to keep action sequences simple in my Flint series. In ‘Glint..’ the immense Battle of Cambrai is portrayed poetically, with a taut single viewpoint conveying the confusion of battle without my character ducking from each shell and moving from ruin to ruin. Not only the laws of physics but the laws of chance seem to be against the men of the Royal Guernsey Light Infantry.

TV and film though thrives on action, and directors delight in breaking Mr Newton’s laws as well as those covering Thermodynamics, basic human physiology and statistical probability. Number one sin is hanging onto a cliff edge by the fingertips, leaping and grabbing ropes or chains or helicopter skids mid air. Just about possible for a stuntman or circus performer with a good deal of practice, not for our average hero. That pact with the scriptwriter is broken and I no longer believe what I’m being shown -even in fantasy such as the Hobbit trilogy. It’s also been done so many times before its just boring (sorry, Hooten & the Lady).

hooten

Falling from heights is in the same category. I was gratified to see the SAS hunk in the latest ‘Our Girl’ hospitalised after a mere 15-foot heroic dive onto a beach whilst grappling a terrorist (and using him to break the fall). Yes people can fall off mountains, out of tall trees, jump from planes into the sea and survive, but generally they will have multiple fractures or have their internal organs re-organised by the experience.

Kick-ass heroines fighting men. Okay if she has some special martial art she can deploybill involving throws and dodges, or can stab with a pointed weapon fast and skilfully, but an average man is so much stronger than even an athletic woman. A fight involving fists, grappling, blows with edged weapons, or grabbing at a knife hand is likely to end just one way. Especially as our heroine is usually young, lithe and wearing impractical attire.

ramboThen there’s ballistics. We’re getting better on the whole of recognising what a mess a bullet can make of the human body. The degree we portray this is largely dictated by the certificate we want our film to have, or whether it will be screened post-watershed. There is still room for the ‘bang you’re dead’ approach to  gunfights, as seen in the Bond movies; we don’t want Saving Private Ryan every night. However there is danger in this fantasy approach to guns – our hero shoots on the move (very little chance of hitting anything), he shoots from the hip (little chance of hitting anything beyond a few feet away), he shoots with both hands (how does he aim?) or he blasts away with a machine gun (when the recoil means that after 4 or 5 shots his bullets will be going up in the air somewhere). This lack of reality may indeed help fuel the bizarre American love affair with firearms.

I won’t even mention car chases…

Peril is not exciting if our hero is not facing a risk of actual death or maiming. Yes we want them to survive and yes we know they are a cut above armchair adventurers such as me, but it is a lazy cheat to allow him/her to bend universal laws when the writer has written his hero into a corner. Much better if s/he can use their intelligence, training, experience and skill to get out of the situation. Rather than shout ‘Never!’ at the screen or throw the book down in disgust, we are instead impressed by the cleverness of the writer.

Asterix #5: The Fiat Gearbox

It was a divers’ joke. The object they found was a blue-grey colour, heavy, metallic. It was the size of a man’s oustretched palm, with a circular central hole and three vanes each with a screw hole. Three further supporting lugs added strength. They called it the Fiat Gearbox, or the Messerschmitt gearbox, thinking this might be a relic from the Occupation rather than a piece of the Roman ship. There was a fair amount of modern junk which had collected in the scour pits formed by Asterix, including  a ‘Sealink’ saucer, so it was not an unreasonable idea.

Then we found a second one, embedded deep in the pine tar. There is even video of a diver chipping it out. I had the job of cleaning this, painstakingly using a pin drill to cut away the clinging tar. It was clearly Roman – and far more ancient than Fiat!bilge pump j

A quick literature search showed that similar objects had been found on several Mediterranean wrecks of the Roman and Byzantine periods. Each was subtly different, but the general design was the same – a metal fixing with circular hole supported so it would attach to a wooden structure. The Lake Nemi bilge pumpobjects were bearings for a bilge pump. Finds from the sunken barges on Lake Nemi dating to the time of Nero offered the best indication of how these would work. A simple chain of cups was powered by a crank and served to scoop water overboard. The design had clearly been in use for at least three centuries by the time Asterix went down.

The presence of a bilge pump explained the ‘limber holes’ cut onto the undersurface of the floor timbers in Asterix. these would allow bilge water to flow freely along the hold of the ship. They only made sense if there was a pump – and this pump had to be located at the lowest part of the ship. Out two parts were however found up in the aft hold, too far back to be effective. Either the pump could be unshipped when not required and was stored at the back, or our two bearings were being carried as spares. One is on display at Castle Cornet and the second at Guernsey Museum. Cleaned and conserved, less burnt than the first,  the second one has a dull bronze-brown colour.

The presence of this ‘Roman’ invention on an otherwise ‘Celtic’ style ship further shows how ‘Asterix’ employed the best technology each culture could offer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wrecked!

Wrecked coverFor the past few months I’ve been editing a book written by a colleague. Wrecked, Guernsey Shipwrecks, is the work of Patrick Martin. When Patrick was working at Fort Grey Shipwreck Museum he asked if he could write a book about the wrecks on display. This seemed an ideal opportunity to publish some of the large collection of photographs and other images in the Museum collection.

The book takes a look at some unusual wrecks, as well as those familiar from displays in Guernsey’s Shipwreck and Maritime Museums.

Wrecked is on sale from 9 December from the Museum shop, other boookshops and online from  Guernsey Museum Shop

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