A European Evening at Our Latest Launch

 

The latest titles from Blue Door Press had a warm send-off at The Word Bookshop, New Cross, London, on 28 March: Jane Kirwan’s Czech themed Goose Woman and Francis Gilbert’s exploration of Hungarian history, Snow on The Danube.

After rich readings there followed a Q & A with Francis explaining why it took him 21 years to complete the novel, and Jane speaking of the connections she finds between  Slabce, the village in Czech where she spends half the year, and the village in Ireland, home of her grandmother.

For those who couldn’t make the launch, here’s a flavour …

 

 

The importance of patience: why it took 21 years to publish Snow on the Danube

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I started writing Snow on the Danube in 1998, and I’m about to publish it 21 years later!

You can find details (including free tickets) about its launch here.

It was quite unlike anything I’d written before because it was not autobiographical at all, which most of my other work had been.

I became fascinated by Hungary because of my interest in the music of Franz Liszt and Béla Bartók; two very contrasting Hungarian composers. Liszt was the romantic showman, a dazzling virtuoso, and the composer of magnificent piano concertos that I fell in love with when I was a teenager. Bartók was, in many ways, the opposite to Liszt: an experimental composer who did very different things with rhythm and tonality. His Concerto for Orchestra is one of my favourite pieces of music. Reading about his troubled relationship with Hungary and his desperately sad and traumatic exile during the Second World War got me investigating the Magyar people’s history. I had also always loved Hungarian-born George Szirtes’s poetry; one of his early collections of poetry, Short Wave, greatly moved and excited me; I loved his elliptical Kafkaesque poetic narratives.

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Clarissa Upchurch brilliant art adorns George Szirtes’ poetry

In 1998, I took the brave but foolhardy plunge to write a novel about Hungary. I visited the country a few times, following up on contacts provided by me by my New York in-laws, who knew quite a few Hungarian emigres. I had also met George Szirtes by then, and he helped me connect with some people in Budapest, including a wonderful editor of a Hungarian literary magazine. I spoke to them, and toured around Budapest, and bought the books translated into English. The internet had not become the great repository of information that it is now, and so the literature I found in Hungary had a magical, rare quality to me. I watched Hungarian films, and generally immersed myself in as much English-language based Hungarian material as I could.

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Béla Lugosi’s interpretation of ‘Dracula’

I rediscovered Béla Lugosi’s interpretation of Dracula after watching Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994). Philip Glass wrote a new score for the film which was issued with the film in 1999. I felt drawn to the voice of a ‘count’ who was both a little similar to Count Dracula but in many ways very different: a coward, a hypochondriac, fussy, musical, someone who only adored himself and his sister. A voice emerged, and I found myself writing about the intense love between my protagonist Count Zoltán Pongrácz and his sister, Anna. I was reading Proust at the time, and used a sort of quasi Proustian voice for him in the sense that it was deliberately fussy, nostalgic, full of yearning.

History shaped Zoltán’s fate; he was born on the day of the Treaty of Trianon (1920), the disastrous treaty that robbed Hungary of its lands made in France after the First World War. In many ways, Zoltán’s fate was sealed by this denuded world; he was the last in a long line of Counts, doomed live on after his family lost everything.

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The destruction of Budapest’s chain bridge during the WWII.

Zoltan’s story, perhaps oddly, came relatively easily for me; I had completed a draft of it by 2001. But then I found it very difficult to give his historical story, set as it is before and during the Second World War, a ‘frame’: a contemporary story which explained why someone might want to discover his lost narrative. I felt the story needed such a frame; a reason as to why the reader might want to connect with the story, a British connection.

I wrote many contemporary ‘frames’ over the years, seeking to give Zoltán’s voice a suitable justification. Zoltan’s story was of interest to people. George Szirtes, as editor of an anthology of fiction and poetry, First Writing, published a section of it in 2001; an eminent agent liked the novel; other discerning readers such as a literary editor, now the editor of the New Statesman, Jason Cowley, and an audiobook publisher, Nicolas Soames, said nice things.

Zoltán was such a powerful character for me that I used him in my first published novel, The Last Day of Term (Shortbooks: 2011; new edition Blue Door Press: 2019). He was the great uncle of my main protagonist Béla Pongrácz, a disaffected teenager living in Bethnal Green and causing mayhem at the academy he had been expelled from. But Zoltán’s story remained hidden from Béla and all those around him; he was just a sad old man living in a down-at-heel council flat, listening to Radio 3, his head forever obsessing about the past.

It took the great editors at Blue Door Press to spot what the novel needed; Pam Johnson and Jane Kirwan read a draft and said they liked Zoltán’s story, but felt that the modern ‘frame’ for the story needed a lot of work. Pam suggested using the device of Béla finding Zoltán’s manuscript after the count died, and this, finally, was the trope that we all felt really worked. The idea of Béla thinking that he’d been left some money only to find a manuscript intrigued me; I saw the potential of Béla finding redemption in reading about his family’s past; the healing power of words, something that interests me a lot.

So, I’ve had to be patient. I’ve learnt to be patient. It’s made me also realise that fiction has a staying power which is quite unusual. Unlike journalism which ages very quickly, stories can linger, stay alive, stay fresh. You can’t easily pick up a piece of journalism you wrote many years ago, and revivify it, but with fiction this can be possible if there are still connections in it with the present day. I’d venture to say that the novel’s focus upon the destructive effects of fascism and anti-semitism have made it more relevant than when I started writing it in the more innocent era of the 1990s, pre-9/11, pre-Brexit, pre-Trump, and pre-the scary reprisal of Hungarian fascism which Victor Orbán’s terrible government seem intent upon resurrecting.

Summer Solstice Readings for National Writing Day at the Word Bookshop, New Cross

I had a very enjoyable day at Goldsmiths on the summer solstice to celebrate National Writing Day. The summer solstice is:

“the time at which the sun is at its northernmost point in the sky(southernmost point in the South hemisphere), appearing at noon at its highest altitude above the horizon.”

It is midsummer; the heart of this glorious season, a time when Vikings used to resolve legal disputes, when the sun would align with the Wyoming’s Bighorn medicine wheel and magnificent Aztec architecture, and the Ancient Chinese would honour the earth which embodied the feminine force known as yin. It’s no surprise then that storytellers, poets and writers have been drawn by its power. In 1987, myself and a group of students from Sussex university put on a play on the summer solstice to honour the trees that fell in the 1986 hurricane. I wrote a fictionalised account of this night in my novel, Who Do You Love, and this prompted me to see if I could celebrate the solstice again. The fact that it was also National Writing Day meant that there were many people interested in getting involved. The following things happened:

First, Goldsmiths English PGCE students hosted a writing workshop in the Goldsmiths allotment. You can find the excellent worksheet they produced on Scribd here.

 

English PGCE students in Goldsmiths allotment, June 21st 2017
English PGCE students in Goldsmiths allotment, June 21st 2017

Second, although she could not be at Goldsmiths, Ursula Troche wrote these two poems to celebrate National Writing Day and the solstice.

 

Third, myself and a number of other writers, including Ian McAuley, Helen Bailey, Peter Daniels, Julie Hutchinson and Magda Knight read at the Word Bookshop. Here are the videos of their readings. They are audible, but the noise in New Cross can be heard at times; it was very hot and we had to leave the bookshop door open!

5 Ingredients for a Great Book Launch

ONE: Find a supportive publisher.

Blue Door Press have been wonderful to be part of because there is such a collaborative spirit. Pamela Johnson, one of the founders of the press, gave me a brief introduction (as you can see on the video) and along with Jane Kirwan & Daphne Astor have been real champions of my work. Who Do You Love is a personal novel, and in some ways quite challenging to write and publish, and I definitely could not have done it without BDP’s unstinting support. BDP has believed in my writing and given me a writerly confidence I haven’t had before.

TWO: Find a supportive bookshop.

The Brick Lane Bookshop were also very helpful; being a local author, they took extra care with things, keeping track of the people invited and offering to sell the books as well as opening after hours on a Friday. The shop was a great venue; cosy but with just enough space to contain the hoards.

THREE: Invite friends and family who like you!

The launch was a great excuse to catch up with family and friends who I hadn’t seen in a while. It was brilliant to see so many smiling faces who were willing to buy my book!

FOUR: Make the speeches short, snappy and include some brief readings.

It’s important to have speeches at a launch, but they do need to be brief; people need time to chat and socialise.

FIVE: Be merry in the moment.

A book launch is a time for celebration so being positive is important; take a moment to enjoy the beauty of people coming together to buy and read your work.

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Melissa Benn, Fiona Millar, Francis Gilbert
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Ian McAuley who launched his novel London Stone with me on the night as well.
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FG with Ayesha Kyrou & Abdul Hanan
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With Sonia Lambert & Andrea Mason (fellow novelists)
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With my father, Peter Gilbert & Tim Hewitt

Who Do You Love by Francis Gilbert

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‘I enjoyed Who Do You Love a lot. It’s beautifully-written, very funny about sex and the excruciating confusion of being young and single then middle aged and trapped. I think you’ve captured something about a generation in a way that will touch a lot of readers…. Really, a terrific novel.” Amanda Craig, literary journalist, and author of A Vicious Circle and Hearts and Minds.

Nick is cracking up. In his mid-forties, he has just been sacked as an arts journalist, with little prospect of getting such a well-paid, prestigious job again. Even more worrying for him is his suspicion that his wife, a Deputy Head at a school, is having an affair with a much more successful person: does she want to trade in Nick for a better model?

But most devastating of all is the fact that he learns that a former lover, Ellida, has died. Unable to find a new job, Nick miserably fails, despite his best attempts, to be pro-active and positive, and retreats into memories of the past.

By turns comic, tragic and romantic, Who Do You Love is a stirring novel which explores the big issues of passion, death and grief; a fast-paced contemporary love story but also moving exploration of what it means to be alive today, which should appeal to fans of writers like David Nichols, Ann Tyler and Nick Hornby.

Why I wrote my autobiographical novel ‘Who Do You Love’…

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J. had died, and the news shocked me. Our relationship had been intense when I was at university, but we’d parted on bad terms. Learning of her death nearly twenty years later from a mutual friend made me feel desperately sad that I had not said goodbye.

At the time, I was working on an education book – I had successfully published several – but I was blocked after hearing this news. I fell into a writerly depression: what was the point?

I ruminated about our passionate but difficult affair in the late 1980s. It was still the last gasp of the analogue age – a decade before laptops, pre-digital cameras and smart phones – and I had no photographs, videos, Facebook status updates, only a set of dog-eared spiral notebooks in which I wrote my diary in my loopy italic handwriting. Digging out my notebooks from the attic jogged my memory, and I began writing a memoir about knowing J. all those years ago. My depression lifted a little but then returned when I felt that I was not communicating the energy, the joie-de-vivre of our time together.

Eventually I gave myself permission to start inventing, turning my own life into a story. It was only then that I found I was writing my way out of the gloom. A new character formed, Ellida (pronounced El-leada), a composite of people I have known and J. The situations that I described were heightened amalgamations of events in my own life. I recast my friends from university as characters, and conjured up a “real” time when I penned a mime play on the summer solstice on a wooded crest of the Sussex Downs, written in response to the terrible hurricane of October 1987. Hundreds of people flocked to see the play; it was both a moment of triumph and humiliation for me as I swallowed a lot of magic mushrooms and had a bad trip. In Who Do You Love, Ellida rescues Nick — the version of myself who appears in the narrative — in a way that echoes, but doesn’t duplicate, what happened in my own life; but Ellida makes the lanterns for the play in the novel, just as J. did in “real life”. There’s a mingling of the truth and fiction which I hope gives a sense of my feelings at the time.

Nick and Ellida visit his grandparents in Northumberland — just as J. and I visited my grandparents in Northumberland. Writing these sections of the novel was the most emotional of all writing experiences I’ve had. I found that writing about them and their dilapidated farmhouse in Northumberland and roaming that incredible wild landscape with its ruined castles and sand-duned coast with my lover was intensely cathartic.

The novel went through many versions as I tried to perfect it for publication. Pam Johnson of Blue Door Press read it in a late draft and was very helpful in suggesting some key motifs that might be threaded through the novel. She was concerned that the wife in the novel, Hadley, was not sympathetic enough; she suggested some ideas which really helped with building a more rounded character. She also pointed out to me the importance of Thomas Hardy’s “At Castle Boterel” in the novel, and showed me how I might emphasize this more clearly. Jane Kirwan pointed out that I needed to illustrate the grandmother’s formidable intelligence more subtly. Both Jane and Pam have been very supportive in helping me find a good cover for the book: working with Sam Sullivan at http://newingtondesign.com/ has been great. The latest cover idea is posted at the top of the article. Being part of Blue Door Press has been a revelation; I have worked with several publishers before, but never had this sense of working with kindred spirits. After 7 years of working on it, Who Do You Love is now ready for publication; it’s truly been a psychic journey for me, taking me through a whole gamut of feelings from despair to joy.

Don’t Mention the NHS

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Northampton General Hospital

“To be a good doctor, one needs to be involved with patients (capable of empathy and humanity); yet to remain objective and survive emotionally, one needs to be detached from their pain and suffering.” Support 4 doctors 2016

Don’t Mention Her follows the story of Connie, a woman doctor. The idea for the novel started with her husband, Liam, walking through a gate, in 1963, into a convent garden in the middle of England. I knew the mood of that scene – he was grief-stricken, was in mourning and couldn’t express it. I wanted to know why, and what happened to that family over the next 50 years. The novel was inevitably going to describe quite drastic changes, not only for Connie and Liam, and for their Catholic family, but more crucially in the practice of medicine.

None of it is actually true, no five-year-old died, no characters are based on people I knew. I had no family history to call on, apart from parents who were doctors in Northampton. But I did have a sense as a child of a deadening, of loss and of secrets. Looking at Don’t Mention Her with its fictional characters I realise that despite all the invention it is full of something that is very familiar, something that was around the house in my childhood and un-named.

It might have been a fear of failure, of blame, or anxiety about either. It might have been the much more present threat then of death. My parents both started in practice before regular use of penicillin, when TB was a constant threat, before vaccination for polio.

In the fifties the ‘family doctor’, or GP, worked alone or with only a few others; there was no practice nurse, there were no hospices, more mothers delivered their babies at home. I would hear the phrase when I temped for the receptionist: ‘I’m under Dr X, we all are.’ Dr X had looked after that family from birth to death, day and night, with the occasional trip by the patient to the General Hospital for surgery.

In The Guardian recently the report of a GP’s suicide mentioned not just that she was being treated for bi-polar disorder but her ‘work-related stress’: she was dealing with the ‘death of a patient’. And, interestingly, she’d had to retire because a patient complained about her blog mentioning her disorder.

As children, there were no conversations at meals about patients. And it wasn’t just silence about work, both my parents’ lives had been marked by siblings dying and had said nothing. My father rarely spoke. My mother had switched to working full-time in public health and was more communicative but she was always rushing. Occasionally she’d talk about polio, pleased that the sugar lump removed the need for an injection, of her experience when pregnant of taking chest xrays for TB; of the prevalence of rickets before the government started handing out Vitamin D in orange juice.

District hospital, Swinford, Mayo; formerly the Fever Hospital, formerly the front of the workhouse.
District Hospital Swinford, Mayo, formerly the Fever Hospital, formely the front of the Workhouse.

But on some things she was less forthcoming: she came from a part of Ireland that within her great-grandparent’s memory, within their stories, was fatally damaged by years of famine. She was angry, and at the same time had no desire to go back to Mayo. There had been too much death, mostly from TB, even within her memory.

But probably it was my father’s silence that marked us most profoundly. His first wife died in childbirth as did the baby. It was their second child; he was left with a toddler aged two. And none of this was ever mentioned. We didn’t know that our oldest sister had a different mother, and neither did she until she was twelve. Years after he died, and shortly before her own death, my mother talked about it briefly. She believed that my father had felt responsible. But he’d refused to say a word.

Various relatives lived with us while they were assistants in the practice. I remember eavesdropping on a cousin taking a phone call about some tests; he reported the results to my mother – the patient was a girl I’d been friendly with since we were four. I could tell it was serious from their muted voices and expressions. Kathleen was an only child, adored by her Catholic parents; soon after her funeral, her parents split up.

Medicine has changed, Clare Gerada in the BMJ describes the new stresses on medical staff: ‘The NHS is exposed daily to negative stories in the media. Its staff are accused of being lazy, cruel, and uncaring, and the service is blamed for failing to meet necessary standards. Doctors, nurses, and managers are seen as villains and are berated by journalists….. who overlook the fact that the NHS still tops the list of what makes the public feel proud about being British.’

Well, the NHS, as we knew it, is disappearing into Virgin Care etc; they allegedly don’t even pay taxes on their profits. Soon the health service might no longer be part of our heritage. And no one mentions it.

Jane Kirwan