Tuesday, 28 June 2016

An interview with...

...fellow Crooked Cat author, Tim Taylor.  Morning Tim

TT  Hello Angela, many thanks for inviting me along today.
AW  You're very welcome Tim and I know your time is precious,so tell me, what is your current release?
TT  My most recent novel, Revolution Day, follows a year in the life of ageing Latin American dictator, Carlos Almanzor, who is feeling increasingly insecure and paranoid as he clings on to power.  His estranged and imprisoned wife, Juanita, is writing a memoir in which she recalls the history of their marriage and Carlos’s regime, charting its long descent from idealism into repression. 
Meanwhile, the vice-President, Manuel, is burning with frustration at his subordinate role.  When his attempts to increase his profile are met with humiliating rejection, he resolves to take action.  But lacking a military power base, he must pursue power not by force but through intrigue, exploiting his role as Minister of Information to manipulate the perceptions of Carlos and those around him and drive a wedge between the President and the Army.  As Manuel makes his move, Juanita and others close to Carlos find themselves unwittingly drawn into his plans.
For the last week in June and the first two weeks in July (only), Revolution Day is on special offer at 99p/99c.  Further information on the novel, including excerpts and reviews, is available on its page on my website.

AW   What first got you into writing and why?
TT  I’ve always had a creative urge, and I’ve enjoyed writing ever since I was at primary school.  It’s always been a part of my life at some level.  That said, there have been periods when I have found it difficult to make time to do much serious writing, and others when that creative urge found different outlets.  But in the last few years I’ve been able to give much more time to writing, and I’m very happy about that.

AW  You write historical and contemporary novels.  Is it all imagination or do you also undertake research?
TT  It depends.  My first novel, Zeus of Ithome, was set in ancient Greece and followed real historical events – the struggle of the Messenian people to free themselves from centuries of slavery under their Spartan neighbours, and the wider political and military wrangling between rival Greek states.  I already had a good background knowledge of the Greek world, having studied it at university, but I had to do quite a bit of research into the events I was writing about and certain historical characters who appear in the novel, as well as into the way people lived, dressed, ate and fought.  I read the ancient sources and some modern history books, and made heavy use of Wikipedia and Google Earth (for places and landscape).
Revolution Day, on the other hand, was about fictional events set in a fictional country, so it required a lot less research.  I still did some, though – e.g. into hispanic names.  I also looked at a number of historical dictators, though my character, Carlos, is not based upon anyone in particular. 
The novel I am currently writing falls somewhere between the two. It is about a woman’s relationship with her father, as he starts to lose his memory and live increasingly in the past.  I’ve done a fair bit of reading on dementia, and may need to do some historical research about the Second World War period. 

AW  And what about other types of writing?  Have you ever dabbled with short stories, for instance, or other genres?
TT  I write poetry and the occasional short story.  I’ve recently been experimenting with spoken word accompanied by music (at open mic events and the like).  I also write academic non-fiction – my background is in philosophy.  Most of my recent research has been on well-being: what it is, how to measure it and its role in public policy.   

AW  Famous authors, such as Roald Dahl and Dylan Thomas, had a special space for writing. Do you have a writing ‘shed’ of your own?
TT  Not really. I used to do all my writing in a small room we call ‘the office’, which houses a PC, bookshelves, filing cabinets and the like.  I do still work there (I’m in the office right now), but the trouble is that the PC is such a source of distractions, mostly from the internet, that I don’t work very efficiently on it.  For my current work in progress I’ve taken the decision to write downstairs in the living room.  I do have a music room (another interest of mine), and ultimately I’d like it to become the writing room as well, but at the moment it’s too cluttered up with guitars and other musical paraphernalia. 

AW  Finally, if you had a whole afternoon to yourself and could choose to spend it with anyone, living or dead or a character from a book.  Who would it be, and what would you want to discuss?
TT  I’d like to take a person from ancient Greece or Rome, possibly someone like Aristotle or Cicero, and show them as much as possible of the modern world, just to see what they thought of it.

AW  What an interesting idea Tim.  But I’m afraid there’s no room for either or, I’m going to have to press you – Aristotle or Cicero?
TT  It would be great to have them both as it would be interesting to see what they had to say to each other.  But if I'm restricted to just one, as a philosopher, I have to choose Aristotle.  Thanks again for your hospitality, Angela!
AW  You're welcome!

About the author Tim was born in 1960 in Stoke-on-Trent.  He studied Classics at Pembroke College, Oxford (and later Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London).  After a couple of years playing in a rock band, he joined the Civil Service, eventually leaving in 2011 to spend more time writing.
Tim now lives in Yorkshire with his wife, Rosa, and divides his time between creative writing, academic research and part-time teaching and other work for Leeds and Huddersfield Universities.
Tim’s first novel, Zeus of Ithome, a historical novel about the struggle of the ancient Messenians to free themselves from Sparta, was published by Crooked Cat in November 2013; his second, Revolution Day in June 2015. Tim also writes poetry and the occasional short story, plays guitar, and likes to walk up hills.
Revolution Day on Amazon UK, Amazon US

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Following Stevenson through the Cévennes

A mountain village
In 1878, when Robert Louis Stevenson decided he would travel through the Cévennes, I'm not absolutely sure that he had considered the seasons, the weather or the look of the countryside.  In his book 'Travels with a Donkey' he mentions to his friend, Sir Sidney Colvin (1845-1927), curator, literary and art critic, that 'we are all travellers' through the 'wilderness of this world'.  Later, in writing about his visit to Luc and Cheylard he says that he travels 'not to go anywhere, but to go.'  He admits he 'travels for travel's sake' and to 'feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly.'  So I am left wondering, as I have on every other occasion when I've read his book, why he chose to visit this part of France in September and October, as June, in my view, is one of the best times to be here.

As I cross the Col de la Pierre Plantée I marvel at the myriad shades of green around me.  From the pale green of the grass to the dense, inky, champagne-bottle green of the pines.  And in amongst this verdancy are the sunshine yellow clumps of the mimosa that jewel the landscape along with the grey of the vast boulders that seem to be growing out of the ground.  I'm reliably informed that these vast boulders have a specific name - glacial erratics.  Apparently, millions of years ago when this vast untamed area was being formed, the shifting ice sheets brought with them enormous lumps of rock and, as the ice melted and receded, the rocks remained.  I glance at the map and think, technical name or not, I'm with the French on this one.  If they can have a col named after planted rocks, then so can I!

The colours of the Cévennes

Stevenson was not very complimentary about the tiny village of Luc - my destination for today's blog and I have to disagree with him.  The village sits in the valley of the Allier with an old chateau above on the strategic high point.  The path to reach the ruins is rough and begins at the top of the village.  As I am about to begin the climb I meet a modern 'Stevenson' coming down.  I ask him if his donkey is called 'Modestine'.  He hesitates for a moment, then shakes his head and says 'Mouka'.  And then he is gone.  I would have liked the opportunity to talk further, but it is clear he is a man on a mission and I gain the impression that French is perhaps not his first language.

From the chateau ruins it is possible to begin to understand the wildness of this place and how solitary any existence here is.  I can hear cowbells in the distance as the Aubracs sit in the sunshine, graze and then sit again.  Madame at my campsite told me the other day that the last snowfall this year was on May 1st.  Autumn is cold and often brings the icy winds that herald snow and when the snow arrives so do the cross-country skiers.  And just to give some perspective, the chateau at Luc is about 1000m above sea level.  The Col de la Pierre Plantée is 1263m above sea level and my campsite is more or less the same.  Ben Nevis is just over 1300m in height.  So, Stevenson and me are effectively travelling the highest mountain in Britain.  At this height, the population is sparse, the villages small and the air is clean and sharp.
The Valley of the Allier from the chateau at Luc
At 'aperitif-o'clock', in the quiet of the early evening sunshine, I raise my glass to my book and say, 'Robbie, as old and as trusted a friend you are, you picked the wrong time of year to be here.'  As the breeze dies, the pollen from the trees settles and the scent of the air is heavy with pine and chestnut and wood sap.  'Robbie, you missed the taste and the colour of the Cévennes'.

There's more from RLS and me here

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Chagrin, Ohio, the Appalachians, & Me

Please welcome Sheila North, radio presenter, author and American living in the UK, to my blog this week.  Continuing the theme of travel and life abroad Sheila gives away a few secrets about her life before Yorkshire!

Hound of the Basingstokes
Illustration byTom Brown 
The state of Ohio (OH) is the birthplace of my favourite American humorist, the late James Thurber.  I'd love to be the visiting writer at ‘The Thurber House’, in Columbus, OH.
Another Ohio treat is the charming small town (population 4,113) of Chagrin Falls, which I visited in the early 1980s.
What's not to like about Chagrin Falls?  For starters, there's that name.  It conjures up images of early 19th century American pioneers, bravely going where no pioneer has gone before.  Unfortunately, instead of the Pacific Ocean, they found a river, and a waterfall.
They were chagrined.
I enjoy writing about real places, which is why most of the short stories in my collection Koi Carpe Diem are based in my home town of Doncaster, South Yorkshire.  One exception is The Hound of the Basingstokes, which is set in a flat in Baker Street, London.  Bunty Jennings: Tree Whisperer takes place in a fictionalised version of Doncaster called Danefield.
Bunty Jennings : Tree Whisperer
Illustration by Tom Brown
Basing fictional places on real ones is great fun, and is what I'm doing with the title story of my upcoming collection, A Yorkshireman in Ohio.  The Yorkshireman is Inspector P. Thwaite, who arrives in Sweetheart Springs, Ohio, with his sidekick, Sergeangt Jake Cat.  Who is a cat, and well pleased to find that Sweetheart Springs is much warmer than Doncaster.  The picture book town of Sweetheart Springs owes a lot to fond memories of Chagrin Falls, although I doubt the latter has ever been the setting for death by tentacle.
I haven't yet placed a story in or around Appalachia.  I suspect it's just a matter of time.  When I was a child, we used to go on vacation every summer.  Mom and Dad would pack the light blue Ford Mercury with kids, colouring books, and suitcases, then drive around visiting other states.  In the morning, Dad would ‘fill 'er up!’ at a gas station.  Come lunchtime, the family stopped for sandwiches, or burgers, followed by ice cream sundaes, chocolate malteds, or a ‘Brown Cow’ - that's a root beer float - at Big Boy's, or Howard Johnsons, or perhaps just a snack and a shop at Stuckeys. Much of my plastic horse collection came from Stuckeys.  Their peanut brittle was pretty good, too.
My favourite vacations were in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where we visited Berea, Kentucky, and bought a copy of a folk songbook called ‘Sweet Rivers of Song’ which I still treasure.  Memories of Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky call to me, even as I write these words.  Someday, I'll feel that cold, early morning mountain air; smell the pines, and look down at the little lights in those big valleys.  And, of course, feast on genuine Southern cooking.  It's rather like Scottish: if it's edible, fry it.
John Denver was right.  It really is almost heaven.

Sheila North
Photograph by Keith Hartley
About the author  I was born in Detroit, Michigan.  This is not necessarily my fault.  I have been a stringer, newspaper editor, tollbooth attendant, comms assistant, journalism student, writers’ group leader and mental health worker.  I also bake the best brownies in South Yorkshire.  My interests include volunteering with a local radio station, singing angst-ridden folk songs, falling asleep in front of the telly and mangling the English language with my Mid-Western-Yorkshire accent.  I live in Doncaster with my husband David, a rat named Charles and a Dalek called Gerald.

About her work  To read more of my writing, visit my blog sheilanorth.wordpress.com, or look on Amazon for my dark fantasy The Woodcutter’s Son; my short story collections, What No Pudding? and Koi Carpe Diem (print copies available from Lulu) the short story collection that precedes A Yorkshireman in Ohio.  The latter is due for publication this month.  You can also hear me on Bookit!, my radio programme about books and writing at sinefm.com

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Following Stevenson through the Cévennes

Florac, a gathering of motorbikes
I’m travelling the Corniche des Cévennes for this post.  And yes, I do know that wasn’t Stevenson’s route from Florac to St-Jean-du-Gard.  But there’s a very specific reason for this, so read on…
A few centuries ago Florac - around 2000 inhabitants now, so small by our standards - was the capital of the one of the eight baronnies of the Gévaudan and therefore under direct control of the Bishop of Mende.  The area of the Gévaudan was known for the harshness of its landscape and the cruelty of its fuedal rule, giving rise to the proverb ‘pays de Gévaudan, pays de tyrans’.  The countryside of Gévaudan is the countryside of tyrants!  
But let's put the history aside for a moment and consider the geography.  Flanked by the Causses Méjean on the west and the Cévennes and Mont Lozère to the north, east and south.  Florac sits at around 550m above sea level.  Yet another charming little place, worth a languid visit, for the park that flanks the chateau alone, before setting out along the D907 and then the D9 to drive along the roof of the world!
I was last here one Sunday morning in September a few years ago and, on the outskirts of town I happened upon ‘Le Tour de France’ for old motorbikes.  I had to stop and stroll around these beautiful machines.  There were BSA’s BMW’s, Mobecane, Motoguzzi and a particularly nice BSA Bantam, I think.  All in stunning condition.  I watched as they started to leave in a steady, timed stream of thrumming engines and exhaust fumes.  RLS missed that, I thought!
Stevenson headed east to Cassagnas using drover’s tracks signposted by stones.  I cut south along the Corniche (D9) and towards St-Jean-du-Gard.  The road runs between two river valleys – Les Gardons Ste Croix and St Jean - and rises to around 1000m.  The highest point was for lunch, to enjoy the view, watch a very large bird of prey slipping from thermal to thermal above and to wonder about the Dutchman who had disturbed my solitude on a previous visit.  I recalled that, after noting the plates on the car, he had said he thought the scenery was as beautiful as that in England.  I remember having to disagree.  Then he pulled up a picnic chair and started chatting, eventually telling me about his home in Freisland, the medals he had won in the annual ice skating marathon along the canals and finally, his work for the resistance during the war.  His parting comment being, that of all the medals he owned, he was most proud of those for his skating.  As I ran over the conversation I wondered if his wife had recovered from the illness that had caused her absence, that day, and if both of them were still around, I wished them well.
Bridge and river near Florac
The sun was encouraging new freckles to develop and my skin to complain so I decided to move on.  The road twists and turns through rocky outcrops, parched course grass and sweet chestnut trees growing wherever they can find a foothold.  Seeing a local lady harvesting the chestnuts, I decided to follow suit.  ‘They won’t be quite ready to eat yet,’ she said.  I nodded and thanked her but decided against telling her I’d done this before!  On that previous visit there had been an elderly couple collecting the chestnuts and it was Madame who shared with me her recipe for flan aux marrons.  As a small and grateful tribute to her for introducing me to yet another amazing taste of France I decided to put flan aux marrons on the Sunday lunch menu at the fictional restaurant in my novel, Messandrierre.
Stevenson made it to St-Jean-du-Gard, as did I, but I took the high road and I know what he missed!  

There's more from RLS and me here