Sunday, 25 January 2009

What is it about the smell of… local hardware store? Must be something to do with all the rubber hoses, the furniture polish and the beeswax. Breathing deeply on it, I love rummaging among screws in little compartments, the cleaning materials, the mop heads and bristly brooms, to find things I don’t think I want, but know I need. Last week, I bought a tightly wound ball of string for the hell of it, thinking I’ve got to support the little shop where the man in the brown apron knows exactly where to find the thingummy for the whatsit in the depths of the store that will make my house an even lovlier place to live. You don’t get that at Wilkinsons: the service, or the smell.

Friday, 23 January 2009

The name of the rose

Readers of my first novel A Season of Leaves will know that the main thrust of the story is based on my great auntie Ginge’s extraordinary experiences during and after the Second World War. (She met a Czech soldier while working as a Land Girl and followed him to Prague once peace was declared, only to escape from the Communist regime within a few years.)
But during the writing of the novel, I was also inspired by another story, that of Eva Melichar, a Czech lady who also escaped Prague with her husband and child in the late forties. She told me how they put their trust in a complete stranger they were told to meet on the edge of wood, who would lead them through the vast countryside, and across the border. They lived in a series of refugee camps before finally coming to settle in the safety of England.
I interviewed Eva in the summer of 2006, to hear her amazing story: how, while still in Prague, her husband disappeared one day while he was fixing their door bell; how he was imprisoned and tortured; how his foot was broken by Red Guards stamping on it and how they eventually released him.
In A Season of Leaves I based my character Rose’s lover Krystof’s experience on this traumatic episode, and Eva helped me with the Czech language that I used in the book; the translation of Rose’s name into Ruzena.
Last week, I had the sad news of Eva’s death, at the age of 86. Her daughter described her as quietly courageous, curious and enthusiastic about the world, and I’d like to express my gratitude to Eva once more for the time she spent with me, her kindness and her hospitality. And her enthusiasm for my little project, which eventually became the realisation of my dream.
It was only when I heard that she’d died that I learned that her full name was Ruzena Eva Melichar; her name was Rose. It seems so fitting that this dignified lady had let the co-incidence drift by as just one more of those wonderfully wistful but thought-provoking mysteries of life.

Back in the room

It’s been a while. During the dark days of December and January I may have been hibernating – and neglecting my blog – but I have been productive in other ways. Apart from completing my tax return (or having my accountant do it: note to self, I owe Alistair Darling 94 pence), I have finished my second novel.
They’re right about "second album/novel" syndrome. Yes, Tides of the Moon (working title) has been harder to write, because expectations are that much higher all round.
However, let me get three things straight: this second novel is not:
a) a sequel to A Season of Leaves (although it is also set during the Second World War; there is so much scope for drama, I find, in a time of crisis).
b) autobiographical (although, one would argue, all that angst must come from somewhere and my therapist would certainly agree).
c) a walk in the park (in fact, completing it has been one of the hardest things I have ever done).

The story is darker than A Season of Leaves, perhaps more personal to me. And there are certainly some moments where the only way for my characters has to be up.
When I am writing a low period for my characters, when they are experiencing a traumatic episode, I tend to set these chapters in the winter time. This happens unconsciously, naturally, almost without me realising. But when their fortunes improve, and they emerge from depression or general muddle, it happens as spring unfolds and summer is opening out before them.

Ever the optimist, I am now looking for the black mornings to lighten by degrees and am waiting eagerly for my indoor hyacinths to release their perfume. I am wondering how matted my long-haired fluffy cat’s winter coat will become before I can take him to the vet for a clipping. Last year he emerged looking a little bit like a poodle. I can’t wait for birdsong, and the new buds that poke out miraculously from seemingly dead wood on the grapevine outside my back door. Now is the time to sweep up the metaphoric fallen leaves from last year, use them as a nourishing mulch and start afresh. I can’t wait for inspiration to strike. I’m waiting….

Novel number three is lurking in there somewhere. And when the characters walk out of the dark and introduce themselves to me, when the story begins to turn corners in my mind, it’s like greeting a long lost friend. So watch this blog.