Friday, 27 February 2015

Margaret Forster - A Life in Books

A few years ago I was asked to write a small pamphlet on the life and work of Cumbrian novelist Margaret Forster.  It was funded by the Arts Council as part of a project that involved asking writers to write about other writers who shared common ground.  The pairing was deliberate.  Margaret Forster and I were both born in Cumbria, both brought up in working-class households, educated in local grammar schools, both had to leave and go south in order to get an education and become writers.  There were other connections too - Margaret’s ambition at university had been to become a biographer, but she became a novelist instead and it was only years into her career that she wrote her first biography and discovered that she preferred fiction.  I started out as a poet and fiction writer and only became a biographer to fund staying alive while I raised four children.  It was years into my career before I published my first novel.

But that’s where the parallels end.  Margaret had instant success with her second novel ‘Georgy Girl, which was made into a film, and became a household name.  I had a best-seller with my fourth biography, ‘Catherine Cookson’, but it proved disastrous (and that’s another story) and it was years before I published anything else.  Our careers have had opposite trajectories, which explains why I was chosen to write about her and not the other way round!

The pamphlet, ‘An Introduction to the Life and Work of Margaret Forster’, quickly went out of print, but people kept on asking for it.  It was Margaret’s husband, Hunter Davies, celebrity biographer and journalist, who suggested that I might re-vamp and republish the little memoir.  I wrote to Margaret to find out how she felt and was delighted to be given permission.  ‘Margaret Forster; A Life in Books’ was re-published as an ebook three years ago and began to sell modestly.  There was a lot I couldn’t talk about in the book, including the novelist's struggle to overcome health problems. Margaret is a very private author - she doesn't have a web page, doesn't appear at literary festivals or give readings and her personal life is exactly that.  At the time I rewrote the biography, she had never publicly admitted that, as a young mother in her thirties, she had suffered from cancer and her recent relapse after years in remission was a closely guarded secret.

Margaret, with her husband Hunter Davies, outside their Cumbrian home.
When you write about a living author, they are constantly adding to the story, but the delight of ebooks is the simplicity of the updating process.  After I re-wrote and re-published my biography, Margaret wrote two more books, which I knew would have to be included.  Then, at the end of 2014, Margaret published a new memoir,My Life in Houses, in which she finally talked about living with cancer.  It was time to update the biography again, adding information which was now in the public domain.  So, Margaret Forster: A Life in Books, has been given a face-lift to bring it up to date, revised and re-published with a lovely new cover designed by my partner Neil Ferber.  Unlike print publishing, it’s a simple matter to re-write sections of an ebook, add a new chapter, run the document through a file converter and upload to Amazon and Kobo.  Unfortunately, my re-writes meant altering the order of the endnote references and adding more.  Neil had great fun with the html links (a braver person than me to even tackle them in the first place!).

Margaret as a judge for the Booker Prize in 1980
I don’t know Margaret Forster personally - if I did I wouldn’t have agreed to write about her.  I’ve met her, and I know her family and other people who know her.  I’ve been one of the judges for the Lakeland Book of the Year awards, asked by her husband Hunter Davies, and Margaret’s daughter Caitlin Davies was going to be my co-tutor on one of the Writing in Tuscany courses.  She’s now, like me, a Royal Literary Fund Fellow.   There are lots of lines of contact, but none so personal that it would affect my objectivity. I couldn’t write about something or someone if I couldn’t be honest.

Writing about someone who is still alive is very difficult - not something I relish.  There are a lot of ethical questions and you have to be aware that you are invading the privacy of their family and friends.  Margaret generously gave me permission to write about her, as did Hunter and Caitlin.  I like to think that her choice of title for her latest book, ‘My Life in Houses’, might have been influenced by mine.

Margaret Forster:  A Life in Books by Kathleen Jones £2.22

"Kathleen Jones gets to the heart of Margaret Forster's contradictions in this book. She sets the scene in the early chapters through an account of the prolific and much loved author's formative years, then reflects on Forster's intellectual life and personal concerns at the time when she was writing each of her many books."  Carol Mackay, Amazon

"Kathleen Jones weaves Margaret Forster's life and books into a beautiful tapestry." Amazon reviewer

Note:  Margaret's own memoir, My Life in Houses, is available on Amazon in print for £7.41, but as an ebook for £9.06!   You can guess which the publisher wants you to buy.   Mine is only £2.22

Monday, 23 February 2015

Tuesday Poem: W.S. Merwin - The Moon Before Morning

I've just finished reading this new collection of W.S. Merwin's work and it's the first time I've really immersed myself in his poetry.  He has been a huge figure in American literature - 'arguably the most influential American poet of the last half-century', as it claims on the cover of the Bloodaxe edition of The Moon Before Morning. He's famous for his lack of punctuation so that the syntax, rhythm and form of the poem have to carry the weight of its meaning entirely, without written prompts on the page, so that it takes on the grace of oral prosody.

The poems in this collection are quiet and elegiac.  'Where will the meanings be/when the words are forgotten', asks one poem.  There are some beautiful images - I loved the refugee voles 'trickling' through the hay in this one:

Time in the Grass

In a few fields the first hay is lying
naked in its new fragrance as its color fades
and no one has stayed to see the noon light
dappling the small growth in the shade of the trees
beside the meadows that are still untouched
where the spring grasses go on rippling
in the shimmering daylight of their lives
and the voles clad in velvet shadows
trickle through their feet under the whispers
of the tall world while the clear notes
of crickets on all sides call keep calling
to the world to stay just as it is
they go on calling even when the grass has gone

I found a lot of favourites in this book.  Lear's Wife remembers her daughters 'with Goneril at my breast/I looked at the world/and saw blood in the darkness/and tried to wake'.   Telephone Ringing uses a line from Adrienne Rich as its starting point. Homecoming recalls a moment in the garden in late dusk when the poet looks up to see the geese returning from their summer migration 'half their weight gone to get them home'.

But this book is a kind of farewell - it looks back and savours a life well lived, not afraid to tackle the regrets or to re-visit a lonely, difficult childhood (The Green Fence). My particular favourite is a long poem called The Natural History of Forgetting.  Merwin was born in 1927, so he's been around for a long time.  How did I take so long to find him?

The Moon Before Morning
Published by Bloodaxe Books

The Tuesday Poets are an international group who try to post a new poem every Tuesday.  We take it in turns to edit the main website.  If you'd like to see what the others are posting click here to take you over to the main hub. 

Friday, 20 February 2015

Gorgeous Girls and Wicked Women: Out of the Box!

Hooray! Today's the day we're officially on sale and we can see how our big experiment is going to work. Can 7 unconventional women with 7 books about stroppy, unconventional heroines (sorry folks - Protagonists)  really make a splash by getting together rather than going it alone?  It's an interesting mix and the books are as individual as their authors.

This is the line-up  Left to Right

Orna Ross, from Ireland, whose novels After the Rising and Before the Fall were published by Penguin before she went Independent.  She's the founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors and described by the Bookseller as one of the most important people in publishing today. Her novel Blue Mercy is in the box, beautifully written, emotionally searching.  Orna writes about 'identity, family loyalty, truth, sex and death, and the struggle between freedom and belonging'.

- Joni Rodgers - best-selling New York Times author of Bald in the Land of Big Hair and The Hurricane Lover. Joni contributed Crazy for Trying, (which could be our strapline) but is a novel about a young girl in full flight from her unsatisfactory background.  Joni says 'I wanted to make people laugh and remind them of the healing power of love.'

Roz Morris - author of My Memories of a Future Life, whose previous novels graced the best-seller bookshelves in WH Smith under other people's names and sold  millions for celebrities who didn't need the money. Roz also tutors would-be authors on the Guardian writing courses and wrote the best-selling Nail Your Novel guides.

And in the middle there's me - literary lunatic and word junkie who simply doesn't know how to stop writing! 

Next there's Jane Davis, whose debut novel, Half Truths & White Lies, published by Black Swan, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award.  Jane has a new novel out this week, The Unknown Woman, but her contribution  to the Box is An Unchoreographed Life - the controversial story of a dancer who turned to prostitution to support herself and her daughter.

Carol Cooper - a London GP and medical author who thinks doctors make good writers because they're trained to observe. One Night at the Jacaranda lifts the lid on speed-dating and mid-life crises.

And far right there's Jessica Bell - an Australian living in Greece, who is a musician, graphic designer and poet as well as editor of the Vine Leaves Literary Journal. She's the one who had the idea of putting us all together.  Jessica's fiction is as sharp and stylish as herself.  In White Lady Sonia, wife of a Melbourne drug lord 'yearns for sharp objects and blood' but is trying to kick the habit and become a conventional mother.

Tempted?  You get all 7 of us for the price of one paperback.  And it's a limited edition.  Get it while you still can!

UK and Europe

USA and the World

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Tuesday Poem: 'February' - Margaret Atwood

Croatian artist Endre Penovac

Winter. Time to eat fat
and watch hockey. In the pewter mornings, the cat,
a black fur sausage with yellow
Houdini eyes, jumps up on the bed and tries
to get onto my head. It’s his
way of telling whether or not I’m dead.
If I’m not, he wants to be scratched; if I am
He’ll think of something. He settles
on my chest, breathing his breath
of burped-up meat and musty sofas,
purring like a washboard. . . .  Read the rest

"February" by Margaret Atwood,
from Morning in the Burned House. © Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

I love this poem - curling up in bed with the cat, which behaves as cats do.  But then the poem morphs into much more serious territory - our expanding population, 'famine
crouches in the bedsheets',  pollution, climate change and war. 'It’s all about sex and territory,/ which are what will finish us off/ in the long run.'   The cat becomes 'the life principle' - a symbol of hope and optimism, urged, in the last line, to ' Make it be spring.'  Yes, please! (Read the whole poem)

Endre Penovac

Morning in the Burned House
published by Houghton Mifflin,
(sadly, not on Kindle)

For more watercolours and information about Endre Penovac click here. 

The Tuesday Poets are an international group of poets from New Zealand, Australia, USA, Canada, Africa and Europe (and probably a few other places as well!).  We try to post a poem every Tuesday and take it in turns to host the main website.  To take a look at what the rest of them are doing, please click over to the Tuesday Poem Hub. This week it's Pen Pal by Sugar Magnolia Wilson. 

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Famous Love Letters

It's the 14th of February again and there seem to be red roses and hearts everywhere - even Virgin Rail were giving away 'Love Hearts' with the coffee on board the train!  So I thought I'd share this love letter from writer Katherine Mansfield to her lover John Middleton Murry. They lived together pretending to be married for several years before Katherine gained a divorce and they were able to be legally married.  It wasn't a happy relationship - John was inhibited and emotionally damaged; Katherine was seriously ill with tuberculosis.  They lived apart most of the time - often in different countries.  Katherine's letters are full of longing 'for a home, for a little baby. . .' and most of all for John's affection and presence in her life.  This letter, which she scribbled in his private journal while he was out, was written just a year before they were able to marry.  She died on January 9th, 1923 aged 34.

18 May 1917: Katherine Mansfield to John Middleton Murry
My darling,
Do not imagine, because you find these lines in your private book that I have been trespassing. You know I have not – and where else shall I leave a love letter? For I long to write you a love letter tonight. You are all about me – I seem to breathe you – hear you – feel you in me and of me …

When you came to tea this afternoon you took a brioche broke it in half & padded the inside doughy bit with two fingers. You always do that with a bun or roll or a piece of bread – It is your way – your head a little on one side the while …

When you opened your suitcase, I saw your old Feltie & a French book and a comb all higgledy-piggedly. “Tig, I’ve only got 3 handkerchiefs.” Why should that memory be so sweet to me? …

Mansfield and Murry in 1918
Last night, there was a moment before you got into bed. You stood, quite naked, bending forward a little – talking. It was only for an instant. I saw you – I loved you so – loved your body with such tenderness. Ah, my dear! And I am not thinking now of “passion”. No, of that other thing that makes me feel that every inch of you is so precious to me – your soft shoulders – your creamy warm skin, your ears, cold like shells are cold – your long legs & your feet that I love to clasp with my feet – the feeling of your belly – & your thin young back. Just below that bone that sticks out at the back of your neck you have a little mole. It is partly because we are young that I feel this tenderness – I love your youth – I could not bear that it should be touched even by a cold wind if I were the Lord.

We two, you know, have everything before us, and we shall do very great things – I have perfect faith in us – and so perfect is my love for you that I am, as it were, still, silent to my very soul. I want nobody but you for my lover and my friend and to nobody but you shall I be faithful.

I am yours forever.


Katherine Mansfield - The Story-Teller

Thursday, 12 February 2015

To Cut a Long Story - New Short Fiction Site for Authors

A little while ago I was contacted by a group of people developing a website that was going to be dedicated to the Short Story.  This is a form of writing that I love but, over the past couple of decades, outlets for short fiction have shrunk and, because it's not particularly commercial, it has been neglected by the big publishers.   Cut a Long Story has been created with the support of the UK Arts Council and an organisation called NAWE - the National Association of Writers in Education - so it has a very good pedigree, since both organisations are dedicated to supporting the creative arts.

The site is now up and running and show-cases short stories by a wide variety of authors - some new, some established.  Salt author Sarah Salway is there, Alwyn Marriage, Elizabeth Stott, Tania Hershman, the fabulous Jane Rogers (Mr Wroe's Virgins), thriller writer Philip Caveney, OU creative writing professor Derek Neale, and exciting new blood like Akeem Balogun.

To Cut a Long Story will sell your stories for you, e-published as individual books, and they pay you 50% of the proceeds.  Submission is easy - you register with them, providing all your details.  Once your registration has been approved you can upload your stories, in a plain Word file, accompanied by an image that you would like to see on the cover.  You can choose the background colour for the image, but the format of the cover is standardised for the site.  This is one of mine - the cover pic for 'The Absence of Henry Swail'

What's not to like?  Come on!  Get submitting!

Monday, 9 February 2015

Tuesday Poem: Between the Forest and the Sea - Emily Carr

From the diaries of Emily Carr, “Klee Wyck”, author and artist, 1871-1945

Emily Carr (front R) and her sisters

1. Scarcely a happening . . .

Five orphaned sisters
in the Book of Small.

Five girls corseted in
taffeta and bombazine and
antique cotton glazed with sugar,
their Sunday blacks pleated and puffed
and trimmed with ribbon knotted
in the language of loss.

They are in mourning for lost lives
the husbands and children they will never have.

Emily is trained to observe
the structures of branch and root
the still lives of rock and wood
the tree but not the voice of the tree.


the thing that moves across water
‘hardly as solid as a thought’; the breath
of the spirit.

Her brush makes a curve
of light in green space
‘a pathway for the eye
and the mind
to travel through’
finding its own rhythm.

Trees are themselves,
she writes,
growing for one purpose.

There is nothing as strong as growing
. . . it bursts forth like a struck match’.

© Kathleen Jones 2015

This is the first section of a long poem I'm working on, telling the story of Emily Carr's life. Emily was one of Canada's first female painters, overcoming a great deal of opposition and family disapproval.   I first became interested in her about three or four years ago when a friend, who knew I was writing about the islands of the Haida Gwaii, suggested I read a novel by Susan Vreeland called The Forest Lover, based on Emily's life. I was fascinated by the story and, searching online for more information, discovered that she had written a series of autobiographies which were available from the Gutenberg Project.   These show that Emily was not just a painter, but a very gifted writer.  

When a big exhibition of her work finally came to London before Christmas, it was the stimulus I needed to start thinking about a series of poems, using her journals and memoirs as a base.  This wasn't the first one I wrote, but needs to be at the beginning of the sequence. I hope the whole narrative will make sense to people who don't know anything about Emily at all. She's such a wonderful character.

I'm making a second visit to the exhibition this weekend, before it closes, and still working on the poems.  

The Tuesday Poets are an international group and we all try to post a poem every Tuesday.  We take turns to edit the main hub. Today we're featuring the NZ poet David Gregory's 'Breathing You In', which begins:

From up here it looked
as if the harbour’s lungs inhaled
the fog in through the headlands;
light as breathing . . . 

If you'd like to see what the rest of us are posting please click here to visit the hub. 

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Tuesday Poem: John Berger - and our faces, my heart, brief as photos

When I open my wallet
to show my papers
pay money
or check the time of a train
I look at your face.

The flower's pollen
is older than the mountains
Aravis is young
as mountains go.

The flower's ovules
will be seeding still
when Aravis then aged
is no more than a hill.

The flower in the heart's
wallet, the force
of what lives us
outliving the mountain.

And our faces, my heart, brief as

Copyright John Berger from
'and our faces, my heart, brief as photos'

Essays on time and space, or love letters?

John Berger is an English art critic and author born in 1926.  He has had two novels listed for the Booker Prize and his seminal work 'Ways of Seeing', which was made into a historic television programme, is quite brilliant.  Fewer people know his collection of essays, some of which are in the form of poems, using the last line of the poem above as a title '... and our faces, my heart, brief as photos'.  I'm just re-reading it and finding beautiful things among other paragraphs that are just a little pretentious and 'arty'. He's sometimes described as 'one of the greatest intellectuals of our time' and his thinking is, at times, somewhat esoteric.  But I love his poetry.  I hadn't known that he was a poet as well as an art critic and novelist, so I suspect that many other people didn't know either.  If the poem above makes you want to explore further, his Collected Poems were published in 2014 and you can find them here.  

This is what John Berger has to say about poetry.

‘Poems, even when narrative, do not resemble stories. All stories are about battles, of one kind or another, which end in victory and defeat. Everything moves towards the end, when the outcome will be known.

Poems, regardless of any outcome, cross the battlefields, tending the wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or the fearful. They bring a kind of peace. Not by anesthesia or easy reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been. Yet the promise is not of a monument. . . The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out.

Poems are nearer to prayers than stories, but in poetry there is no one behind the language being prayed to. It is the language itself which has to hear and acknowledge. For the religious poet, the Word is the first attribute of God. In all poetry, words are a presence before they are a means of communication.’
 And our faces, etc pp. 21-22

John Berger

The Tuesday Poets are a group of poets from all over the world who try to post a poem every Tuesday.  We have a hub site and take it in turns to edit it.  If you'd like to see what we're all posting, please click here to take a look at the main site.  Today's hub poem is 'Like a Butterfly' by Australian poet Jennifer Compton.