The Mag

The theme for this blog was going to be about my urge to write. I’ve always had that inner drive since childhood when I composed endless poems and short stories – and now the trait lives on in my nieces Emma (11) and Julia (nearly 7) who are exactly the same!

But then I remembered my mother’s much-loved correspondence magazine and decided to focus the blog on another means of self expression; the art of writing letters.

When I was a baby in the 1960s, at a time when new mums rarely had jobs, my mother saw an advertisement in a magazine called ‘Parents’ for other young mums to join a correspondence circle. Today the equivalent would be a mini Mumsnet! Seven new ‘friends’ were selected by the person who had placed the ad and they agreed a system for the correspondence circle to work.

Person 1 would write a long letter in a large spiral-bound notebook which she then posted to person 2 who repeated the process, forwarding it to person 3 until it finally returned to person 1. At that point, person 1 would tear out her first letter and write a new one in the notebook so that circulation could start again. They took it in turns to buy a new notebook when necessary.

Ironically, the woman who initiated the idea soon dropped out – maybe realising she’d started something she was reluctant to commit time to – but the other seven young mums embraced it with enthusiasm. The mag, as it came to be known, was born.

I well remember my mother’s thrilled cry – ‘the mag’s here’ – when it landed on our mat several times a year. The correspondents were from as far afield as the Lake District, Hampshire, the Midlands and the South East and for many years they never met in person. Once they were retired, they started having girls’ weekends away which all seven of them always loved attending.

As a child I witnessed my mother’s absorption in the lives of these friends – bearing in mind she’d never met them at that point – and the fact that ‘the mag’ became a sort of confessional for the women who were bringing up families, going through the pain of separation or divorce, parents’ deaths, illnesses of family or loved ones. I think it was a vital outlet for their feelings, their hopes and aspirations, their worries and fears.

Mum and me

One woman detailed the discovery of her husband’s affair in heartbreaking detail, begging the correspondence circle friends for help and advice. The naked pain and desperation were evident in her letter and they all telephoned her to offer support but also wrote long, heartfelt replies in the mag. At other, happier times there were photos included of weddings, grandchildren and holidays.

My memory of the mag are of how much joy and pleasure it brought my mother and what a huge part it played in her life. At a time when there was no easy way to share feelings, it must have offered a vital connection to other women going through the same experiences of marriage and motherhood, many of them probably feeling isolated in their own way.

Oddly, the mag has played an important role in my own life too. When I was nearly 11, one of the mag correspondents – Betty – wrote that her daughter Joanna was seeking a pen pal. As soon as my mother suggested me as a candidate, Jo and I tentatively started writing to each other. We were two months apart in age and both loved reading books and writing letters.

Buying stationery for my correspondence to Jo soon became a regular habit; at one point we were writing to each other three times a week, desperate to share our thoughts and news of what was happening in our lives. I just wish I’d kept all those luridly coloured letters.

Happily, more than 40 years later we’re still the best of friends, having finally exchanged letter writing for emailing and meeting in person.

The sharing of memories, aspirations and anxieties are key to making friendships and I rue the loss of letter writing as a method of communicating. I do still write to my aunt in the USA – who can no longer use a computer and loves to have letters read out to her – but I miss the days of friends contacting me via the post. Receiving a hand written letter is a rare treat.

When my lovely mother died in 2012, I found amongst her papers many of her old letters from the mag which, having torn them from the notebooks, she’d kept as reminders of what had happened in her life. It took quite a time before I plucked up the courage to go through them – it was too upsetting to hear my mum’s voice in every word – but in the end I read them.

Her pride and interest in her family and her work (she was a teacher), her love of dogs and the countryside and of course her beloved football team Manchester City all shone through. Although I shed many a tear on reading them, I was so glad I did; they formed a sort of personal history of my mum and my own family.

Two of the original seven correspondents from the mag have sadly passed away but the remaining five still write to each other, faithfully circulating their notebooks around the country at a time when that personal contact is probably extra important and special.

Joanna and I are always threatening to write a book based on the mag and the bond between our mothers which started in such a special way and led to our own lifelong friendship. We’ve been through so much together as friends, as did our mothers – and those connections were formed via the crucial love of writing.

Book or Movie?

A bookmark I was given for my birthday states ‘Never judge a book by its movie’ – which focused my mind on the thorny issue of film adaptations of favourite books. And there’s also that old question: read the book first, or watch the film?

Almost always I’d say you have to enjoy the book first – otherwise any subsequent reading will be tainted by the unshiftable vision of the characters looking exactly as they did in the movie. The only exception to this, in my opinion, is the Harry Potter series. I tried to read the first book in the late 90s, soon after it came out, when an author friend lent it to me with an avid recommendation. At that time I couldn’t get past the second page; for some reason the story held no appeal for me.

But after watching the film series over the years with my daughter, and recently seeing my niece devour all seven books in a matter of weeks, I wondered if I was missing something. So I tried the books again – and loved them. The fact that in my imagination Harry was Daniel Radcliffe and Snape was Alan Rickman (etc) didn’t matter; yes, the Hogwarts on the page had merged in my mind with the one I’d seen on the screen – but that didn’t matter, any more than the new face of Dumbledore mattered in the third movie. The films were good enough not to spoil the books.

But what happens when your most beloved novel is made into a film (or TV programme) and ruined? My first experience of this was when Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night was serialised on American TV many years ago. The casting of Dick Diver, the central male character, wasn’t a problem – Peter Strauss had bland good looks exactly as I’d imagined from the book. His wife Nicole was a different matter. In the wonderful novel, Nicole is described as blonde and fragile; for some inexplicable reason tall, dark Mary Steenburgen was cast in the part. I was horrified.

Unfortunate casting! Mary Steenburgen as Nicole

Other examples include the film version of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure – great acting from Christopher Eccleston and Kate Winslet, but the overlong movie emphasises the deeply depressing nature of the book – as well as filmed adaptations of Wuthering Heights. In my view, nothing can capture Emily Brontë’s intense writing and the bleak Yorkshire romanticism of Cathy and Heathcliff’s doomed love. Seeing it on the screen just doesn’t work.

Movie versions have been made of some fabulous novels – The Lovely Bones, The Time Traveller’s Wife, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, The Help, The Colour Purple, Cloud Atlas – but in my opinion the books win out every time. 

Sometimes, though, novels turned into TV or film are so damned good that they bring a new audience to an author’s work. I’m thinking of Pride and Prejudice – where female viewers fell for Colin Firth in a cleverly added scene that isn’t in the book – and Sense and Sensibility, my all-time favourite movie adaptation. What makes it so perfect? The screenplay, for a start – written by Emma Thompson who won an Oscar – no dumbing down, no omission of ‘boring’ scenes; just a faithful telling of Jane Austen’s story with beautiful locations and a superb cast. What’s not to love?

Other Oscar-winning adaptations include Sophie’s Choice – I found the novel rather wordy but loved the movie with Meryl Streep – or Schindler’s List which worked surprisingly well on the big screen, starring Liam Neeson.

One film I’m eagerly awaiting is one I read hints about a while ago but of which I’ve seen no trace: an adaptation of Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree series, supposedly taken on by director Sam Mendes. I would trust him to create a suitably magical big screen version of one of my childhood favourites – but maybe he’s given up on the idea, as the rumours have vanished. I shall keep hoping…

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your suggestions for particularly successful film/TV versions of favourite books or – just as interesting – any disasters!

Book bingeing #2 – fantasy, detectives and Nordic noir

Like most book addicts, I’m a sucker for a good series. There’s something entirely satisfying about seeing a set of covers on your shelf and waiting impatiently for the next title to be published. Getting to know a group of characters; recognising the location of the stories; that reassuring familiarity when you start the new one in the series – it can be really addictive.

In terms of selling books it’s no surprise to know that publishers are always on the look-out for new novels forming part of a series. It’s a great way to hook readers and, no doubt, hope that the books end up being filmed or televised. Look at the success of Inspector Morse, Game of Thrones and, of course, the most famous and successful series of them all – Harry Potter.

Here I want to talk about some of my favourite book series I’ve discovered as an adult; all very different but equally interesting in their own way.

I’ll start with the Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake – the perfect example of how easy it is to prejudge books by their covers and by the blurb on the back. Initially I thought these looked and sounded weird! I saw them in a second hand bookshop with my then husband who picked one up, saying: ‘Have you read these? They’re amazing.’

I was put off not only by the line drawings on the front but also by the blurb which talked about ‘Gothic imagination’ and ‘fantasy’. Really not my scene – and I was also deterred by the title of the first book, Titus Groan. Nothing could have seemed less like my cup of tea, but I bought the books out of loyalty to my husband who’d enjoyed the trilogy so much when he was younger.

One of the many quirky illustrations inside Gormenghast

To my surprise, I loved them. The ‘alternative universe’ of Gormenghast enthralled me and the intricate storytelling – reminiscent of Harry Potter in parts – is so cleverly carried out that the reader is swept along in a dream land populated by characters with exotic names such as Flay, Fuchsia and Prunesquallor. Genuinely unique and incredibly creative.

Then there are the Wallander detective novels by Henning Mankell – one of the first examples of the Nordic noir genre – written in the 1990s and popularised in the UK when they were televised with Kenneth Branagh as the eponymous detective Kurt Wallander. I’ve never watched it, preferring to keep the character as I imagine him rather than seeing Ken pretending to be Swedish.

I got into this series when I lived in France and would swap books with a friend on a regular basis. It was cheaper and more fun than buying them on Amazon; rather like a mini book group for the two of us. She suggested I might enjoy the first Wallander novel and I looked doubtful – a detective novel set in Sweden didn’t sound my scene – but agreed out of politeness to try it.

A few days later I was back at her house begging to borrow the next in the series, and that continued until I’d finished them all. The sense of loss when I finished the last one was palpable: I’d enjoyed them so much, and so totally absorbed the bleak Swedish countryside evoked by Mankell, that I was loath to accept there were no more to read.

Kenneth Branagh as Kurt Wallander

These final two series are similar in that they’re more recent; in fact, both had new books added to them last year (much to mine and many other people’s delight). One is Susan Hill’s superb Simon Serrailler series about a detective living in a fictional town called Lafferton, and the other is Kate Atkinson’s wonderful Jackson Brodie collection.

Both authors are masters of their craft and I’ve read plenty of other books by them – but these two series are, in my opinion, tours de force for different reasons.

Starting with the Simon Serrailler novels – there are ten now – I can virtually read one of these books in a single sitting; that’s how gripped I am by the stories and the atmosphere Hill creates. We get to know all about Simon, his failed relationships and his slightly odd family, as well as vicariously experiencing the gruesome crimes he’s investigating (at least one per story).

Despite the fact that an unfortunate number of major mishaps seem to befall the Serrailler clan, the books are beautifully written and extraordinarily atmospheric. An air of menace flows through each story, yet they never seem overdone or repetitive. Already I’m looking forward to the eleventh in the series and hope I won’t have to wait too long.

And then there are the Jackson Brodie stories, which followers of my instagram will know I’ve mentioned before. For me, this series is based around a perfect piece of characterisation: Jackson, the worn ex-cop – who becomes a private detective and makes bad choices about women – is totally believable in his reactions and private musings.

The books are shot through with word play, jokes and telling relationship insights but then the author shocks the reader with graphic bursts of violence which are integral to the plot but come as a surprise each time. The books are equally funny, moving and scary – a hard combination to pull off – and all I can say is that I wish I could write like Kate Atkinson. I shall keep trying.

In the meantime, I thoroughly recommend all four of these collections and would love to hear suggestions of other well written and entertaining book series.

Book Bingeing #1

Who doesn’t love a good series? At this time of lockdown, my daughter and I are working our way through various box sets on Netflix that we’ve – well, mostly me – managed to miss over recent years – we’re currently hooked on Killing Eve. Bingeing on TV is great, but I’ve always found it easy to become obsessed with book series too.

My first great reading love was The Famous Five and I genuinely think they ignited my passion for collecting books. At that time we lived in Streatham, south London, where there was a second- hand bookshop we often used to visit after school. For some reason I associate each trip there with my mother buying me a bag of pink sweets – sort of marshmallow flavour but a hard texture – and this may well explain my passion for eating sweets whilst reading!

Back to the books… this shop contained a section devoted to Enid Blyton and I can still picture the row of Famous Five red hardbacks lined up on the shelf. Each week my mother would buy me another one of the series and I gradually built up my collection – starting with Five on a Treasure Island (was Uncle Quentin a goodie or baddie?) and soon extending to over twenty. My favourite was always Five go to Smugglers Top.

Nostalgia…

I devoured these books with enthusiasm and quickly discovered the Five Find Outers (led by the non-PC-named Fatty) and the Secret series (Island, Mountain etc). Next came the school ones which were even more my cup of tea: the O’Sullivan twins at St Clare’s, and of course Darrell and Sally at Malory Towers. Malory Towers was my first paperback set, followed by Noel Streatfeild’s Gemma series which my grandmother bought me when they came out.

Around the age of 10, I started reading the Lone Pine stories by Malcolm Saville, centred around a club founded by children under a solitary pine tree in the Shropshire hills. It was instant love. My mother had known of the series as a child – the first few books were written during the war when the author spent some time in Shropshire – and she liked them too.

My feelings went way beyond liking them. I literally adored those books; in fact, I loved them so much that I’d copy out sections just for the joy of seeing the words in my own writing. Gradually I collected them all; 18 in total, from what I remember, and persuaded my parents to take us on holiday to the Shropshire hills near Church Stretton in the hope of finding the house called Witchend where the children lived.

The fact that the books contained a disclaimer saying there was no house called Witchend didn’t deter me. I sent a couple of letters to Malcolm Saville telling him how much I loved the Lone Piners and received gracious handwritten replies which I still have. I was absolutely convinced that Witchend existed and as I grew up I kept the Lone Pine books, always believing one day I would find the house.

A treasured letter from Malcolm Saville

As an adult I often returned to stay near the Long Mynd, sometimes persuading my then husband to help me try and track down the real Witchend. We searched around rather vaguely but never saw any clues. Then one day an amazing thing happened. I was in a newsagent’s in Church Stretton and found a book called The Complete Lone Pine giving details of locations in the books.

Literally shaking as I flicked through it, I saw the name of the farm that Witchend had been based upon. Part of me was scared to go there – 20 years on from my original eagerness to find the place – would it live up to expectations? My husband and I set off straight away, with the help of an Ordnance Survey map. It wasn’t far from Church Stretton and as we neared the turning I became really nervous. Was this a mistake?

As we drove up the green-fringed lane – vividly evoked in the Lone Pine books – towards the house, I felt I knew the route so well. Then we turned a corner and there it was, nestling snugly in a small valley with the wood behind, just as Malcolm Saville had described. I can’t deny that I shed a tear or two. Finally I’d found Witchend and, just as I’d always known, the house was real.

As we stood on the hill above the house and I took some photos, a man appeared and started shouting at us. I was mortified. Was he angry? But no, he seemed to be waving in a friendly way. As he got near, I could hear he was asking something: ‘Are you looking for Witchend?’

I nodded and he beamed at us. ‘Yes, this is it. We have people coming here from all over the world because they loved the books as children.’

So it wasn’t just me who’d been desperate to find Witchend. We chatted for a while – he was lovely – and then left, feeling that I’d uncovered a special link to my childhood. No wonder those books were written so lovingly about the Shropshire countryside; Saville was describing the very house where his children had been evacuated in the war and he used to come to stay.

Another location in the Lone Pine series was Rye – particularly the Mermaid Inn – and the books sparked a long-held ambition to go and stay there. Earlier this year I did it. My daughter and I spent a wonderful day and night in Rye staying in Dr Syn’s Bedchamber (where the Queen Mother had stayed nearly 40 years ago!) and it lived up to all my expectations; atmospheric, beautiful and truly historic.

My bookish friends and I often discuss our favourite various childhood series – the characters are imprinted on our memories despite the fact we remember little of school lessons from back then – and it’s a real bonding experience. Seeing even one of those books in their original format gives me a jolt of nostalgia and delight.

From Self-Publishing to Published Author!

Having self-published Landsliding on Kindle, I described in my last blog the frustration of not having a physical book to send people to review, photograph or to give away as a competition prize. I had no publisher to help spread the word about my novel – it was all down to me – and so I decided the only way forward was to print some copies myself.

In theory this sounded easy but then I started researching the options and realised just how many challenges and decisions awaited me:

  • how much did I want to spend?
  • how should I go about choosing a printing company?
  • what would I do about designing a cover?
  • I’d have to select the book’s size, font, paper quality and even paper colour (who knew!)
  • did I want virtual or physical proof copies?
  • as I lived in rural France at the time, organising delivery wouldn’t be easy!

These issues were daunting, but I felt sure this would be the ideal way to make Landsliding more accessible to a much wider readership. I identified a company in Peterborough which had received rave reviews for its book printing services and started to plan with them the practicalities.

The path to the finished product wasn’t smooth. I won’t bore you with all the problems, suffice to say some were the company’s fault (eg. sending a proof copy with the wrong cover, causing a week’s delay in my carefully planned schedule) and others weren’t (eg. their print room being damaged by a lightning strike which led to another delay in printing).

Designing my cover was one of the more pleasurable aspects although I had no idea where to start. All I knew was that I wanted the word ‘landsliding’ to run downwards, mimicking a real landslide, and I wanted the cover to be pretty. So I went around my house photographing images or fabrics that appealed to me and soon found the right one; part of a picture showing a hazy rustic image of a sunset and some rolling hills.

My mock-up of Landsliding’s cover

I mocked up an image of how I imagined the cover to look and sent it to the designer employed by the printing company. In the end it turned out as colourful and appealing; I was delighted, ignoring the (rather vital) fact that the cover image had nothing to do with the story and gave potential readers no idea what they might expect from the book itself.

Once the copies were delivered, I was faced with the decision of what to do with them. Bravely I approached a few independent bookshops and sent a copy to each, asking them to read it and let me have their opinion. My first success was a bookshop in Yorkshire where the manager read the book and loved it, agreeing to take six copies on a sale or return basis. I thought I’d cracked it.

Landsliding on display in Yorkshire bookshop

I held readings and signings at libraries near me in France which were enjoyable and gratifying – I sold around 50 copies at each one – and attended a UK book fair for self published authors which was a pretty dismal experience. Most of the public seemed totally uninterested in buying any books and had come in to ‘have a look’ before going off to do something more fascinating with their day.

As soon as it was printed, a kind friend of mine had sent copies of Landsliding to a few of his contacts in the media world but nothing had come of it. Most told him they were too busy to look at it, or it wasn’t their genre, or they’d get back to him if they felt there was anything they could do (a polite way of saying please go away).

Many months later, out of the blue, something totally bizarre and unexpected happened. In my email inbox I found a message from someone I’d never heard of but he mentioned that my friend had given him a copy of my book. To my amazement, he said he’d read the first few chapters and liked what he saw. Would I call him? This turned out to be Scott, my lovely editor.

We spoke a lot over the following year. He read the rest of the book, shared it with his colleagues and in the end told me he wanted Landsliding to be part of a new series of ebooks his company was launching. I thought about it for five minutes and realised I had nothing to lose; it was the perfect opportunity to get my book out into the public domain with the backing of a reputable company.

The next months were a blur of working through the text – Scott wanted a few additions and amendments but nothing major, luckily – and agreeing a new cover. My own cover, the one I’d designed and was so attached to, was deemed ‘terrible’ by Scott for the reasons already mentioned, so his own illustrator came up with a new image of a domestic scene (a barbecue in a suburban garden) viewed from the sky.

Landsliding’s new cover

At first I wasn’t sure – it was a messy image and, to me, not remotely pleasing to the eye – but Scott loved it and so did all the people I showed it to. Descriptions included ‘intriguing’, ‘eye-catching’ and ‘totally different’ – all of which showed that Scott and his team were right. The cover really did grab attention and would help to attract readers.

Finally, on Monday 13 April 2020 – on what must have been the weirdest Easter Monday ever, with the country in lockdown – Landsliding was launched by Lightning Books as an ebook. Finally I had achieved my long held ambition of becoming a published author.

A Leap of Faith: Self-Publication Online

At the end of my last blog I described how I’d decided to self-publish Landsliding on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) platform – and then a whole new set of problems faced me.

  1. Obviously the whole manuscript would need to be edited and proofread – but how would I ever be certain when it was ready to go online? There would be no professional editor to advise or help me.
  2. How did one start to go about uploading a book online – how did you format it, choose the font, design a cover or promote it? I had no idea about any of those things.
  3. And suppose I received loads of negative reviews – was I resilient enough to cope, without being put off writing for life? I really wasn’t sure.

I knew I had to start somewhere, so first of all I read carefully through the whole manuscript, looking for any discrepancies, errors or typos. Then I asked a couple of my writing group friends – ones who hadn’t seen it before – to read the text and give their honest views. Once they fed back their thoughts, I made a few amendments to take their views into account.

In the meantime I had set myself up on KDP so I’d be ready to publish when the time came; happily, the admin part wasn’t as complex as I’d anticipated. Also, it turned out that both the formatting and the font were standardised as part of the process so I wouldn’t have any worries about those.

The question of cover design was problematic, as I was loathe to spend time and/or money on commissioning an illustrator to create one for me. Being an Aries I’m incredibly impatient; I want to do everything straight away with no hanging around.

I don’t know how it works on KDP nowadays but when I did it there was a very simple graphic design package whereby you could design your cover for free. So with the help of my daughter Susannah I created an extremely basic cover, hoping its lack of visual appeal wouldn’t deter potential readers.

Landsliding’s original cover (!)

After that was done, I proofed the text several more times to look for typos and was shocked to find how tiny errors can creep past you time after time. This was a really labour intensive task as each read-through took a full day. By the time I’d proofed it seven times I got to the stage where it was as perfect as it was going to get – so I was ready to upload and put Landsliding online.

This was the really terrifying part. Pressing ‘Upload’ literally terrified me – I knew that once it was online my work would be exposed to the world, risking both praise and ridicule. In the end I more or less just closed my eyes and took a leap of faith, feeling a mix of exhilaration (I’ve done it!) and abject terror (What the hell have I done?)

A couple of my friends bought the book immediately and posted glowing reviews within a couple of days. Living in rural France, as I was then, word spread fast through the local expat community so it was no problem to promote it locally. 

But beyond the local area and my friends in the UK, I had little idea about publicity. After selling around 100 virtual copies I seemed to have hit an impasse so – to try and widen the net – I did the following things:

  • I started an author Facebook account, having always sworn to keep away from social media
  • I sent the book’s Amazon link to reviewers and editors
  • I tried to interest local magazines in reviewing it 
  • I asked our local library in France (which had a popular English section) if they’d like me to give an author reading 

To my disappointment,  everyone I approached said they needed to see the actual printed book. Nowadays it’s no disadvantage to be published only in ebook format ; there have been some massively successful e-authors such as crime fiction writer  LJ Ross who’s sold nearly 5 million books. But, for me, particularly with no expert knowledge of social media, it was way too hard to get the message out to the world.

It was so frustrating. I had huge belief in my book and knew I could get people interested if only there was a product to show them. In the end I realised there was only one answer; to get copies printed myself. So now I’d be self publishing in paperback format – and the next phase of Landsliding’s journey was about to begin.

Celebrating my big accomplishment!

Writing Groups Are Vital

For the aspiring authors among you – and those interested in hearing about the process of creating a novel – I wanted to talk about the importance of a supportive writing group. For me it’s been invaluable.

I started writing short stories in my twenties, showed them to nobody and never knew what to do with them. After that I felt compelled to start a novel, repeatedly coming up with plot ideas but lacking anyone to discuss them with. Once or twice I submitted opening chapters to publishers but had no positive response apart from one generous chap who told me I had a gift for storytelling.

That comment aside, I had no idea if I was doing anything right. Did my writing flow, and were my characters believable? Did my stories hang together in the right sort of way? I wrote a few poems but, again, didn’t know where to send them or if they were good enough for public consumption.

I attended a couple of creative writing courses which I enjoyed but the standard varied wildly – from people who wrote amazingly well to others whose work was barely comprehensible. It wasn’t until I moved to France that I joined a writing group, and everything changed.

Like many great discoveries, it happened through serendipity. When I was introduced to my neighbour’s (English) friend who was writing a book set in Corsica I was full of admiration, if a little envious too. Having that amount of focus and dedication seemed way beyond my wildest dreams. I shyly told her I used to write and had recently wondered about starting again.

A few weeks later I received an email saying that the writing group of which she was a member – yes, in our tiny French village! – had a space as somebody had left. Would I like to join? Nervously I accepted, wondering whether the people would be friendly and accepting of me as a newcomer, if my work was up to scratch – the obvious type of concerns when you join a writing group.

As it turned out I struck super lucky. The members of the group were welcoming and soon became close, supportive friends. Without exception they were talented, committed writers – who just happened to live in the middle of the French countryside – and several of us decided to embark on a novel at the same moment.

Landsliding was born out of my wish to write something pacy and gripping, the kind of book I was reading a lot of at that time. Some of those stories started well but faded towards the end, others didn’t live up to the exciting blurb on the back, while a few were patently unbelievable. I thought maybe, just maybe I could do better.

With two writing group colleagues, Catherine and Anita, we formed a mini group which met once a week to review each other’s work. Because I had that incentive, I found myself knuckling down and sometimes completing several thousand words in a day. It was a euphoric feeling to have like-minded fellow writers who were on their own journey and yet supporting me all the way on mine.

I looked on as my friend had her Corsica book published. Every time I read a glowing review of it, I thought ‘That could be me next time’. She helped and advised me with the development of my own novel while I was able to use some of my marketing expertise to advise her on promoting her excellent book.

Once I’d finished Landsliding – that was always my title, right from the moment I started writing it – I submitted the first chapters to literary agents in the hope that they’d be sufficiently impressed to want to see the rest.

That’s when my real crisis of confidence began, when the much hoped for positive response didn’t materialise. Other authors I’d heard of had received an instant ‘yes‘ from the first agent they’d approached – and, as unlikely as I knew that would be, I couldn’t stop myself hoping for a similar outcome. It didn’t happen.

After approaching ten or so agents, I gave up. The rejections were too predictable: they liked my writing, the story was current and interesting, but the book wasn’t quite what they were looking for at that time. And, I couldn’t help thinking, I didn’t have the kudos of being a TV presenter or a dancer or another celebrity who got their books published so effortlessly.

That’s when the writing group came into its own again. Dispirited, I was tempted to give up on Landsliding and start something else – but my fellow members encouraged me to keep going. It was good enough, they assured me. People would love the book – it was just a case of getting it into the public domain.

One of my colleagues in the group had been looking into self-publication via Kindle and assured me that it was no longer considered ‘vanity publishing’; rather, it was the new way of getting work out there. So with her support I decided to go down the self-publication route – and that was the next phase of the Landsliding journey. 

Piffle – the Cinderella Cat

For ten years I lived in rural France, in an old farmhouse with a barn and huge garden – and during our second summer there, we discovered a widespread mouse problem. Every time we walked into a room a little head would pop up, closely followed by the sound of tiny scurrying feet. There was only thing for it – we needed some feline deterrents.

First there was PomPom who lasted a couple of weeks before he was run over. Next was Peche – I can’t remember what happened to her, but she didn’t last long either. Then we decided to get some kittens in the hope they’d have more longevity. 

Arabella, a beautiful half-Siamese fluffball joined our family before we heard about two stray kittens living in a nearby barn with their mum. They were all completely feral – nobody could get near them – but we agreed to adopt the kittens, happy that they’d complete our new feline family. 

The night before we were due to collect them we received a call to say if we didn’t agree to take the kittens’ mother, she would be put down by the French barn owner. Feebly we protested: we didn’t want an adult cat, we just wanted the kittens but – you’ve guessed it – she too became part of the adoption package

Piffle, as she’d been named, was the most feral, suspicious cat you can imagine. If any of us went near her she ran a mile, often picking up her kittens (whom we named Cinnamon and Gully) and disappearing from sight. Hardly a rewarding pet – as opposed to Arabella who loved cuddles, was wildly sociable and admired by all who saw her.

Piffle, on the other hand, remained largely out of sight and untouchable for the first couple of years. The nearest I got was managing to entice her into a cage so I could take her to the vet to be spayed. She and I literally had no relationship apart from the fact that I left food out for her every day.

Arabella (front) and Piffle (back)

Everything changed when Arabella and Cinnamon had their virtue taken by a night time intruder despite the fact we had two dogs who slept outside. An ugly bandy legged tom seemed to be the culprit, to our dismay (and probably Arabella and Cinnamon’s too). Sure enough, a few weeks later both cats became very plump and our fears were confirmed.

One sunny day we’d been out and, on returning, were surprised to see the two dogs sitting quite still at the foot of an outdoor staircase that led to a balcony. Piffle was perched on the steps and the atmosphere was tense. Going up the stairs I was amazed to find Arabella and Cinnamon lying facing each other, stretched out and paws touching, with a newly born kitten between them.

Four more kittens were born over the next hour: in total two snowy white ones to Arabella and three multi coloured to Cinnamon. They remained on the balcony for days, the two cats nursing all the kittens in a communal arrangement. Piffle, meanwhile, relished her position as security guard and would leap ferociously at the dogs, yowling, claws out, if they got too close. 

Arabella surrounded by her and Cinnamon’s kittens

From that point she seemed more willing to engage with us humans. Occasionally she’d let us touch her – fleetingly – though, unlike Arabella, she never tried to come into the house. She slept in the hay loft, remaining aloof, but her fear of us had gone. Sadly Cinnamon’s kittens died of cat flu, Arabella’s were adopted by a friend, while Cinnamon and her brother Gully simply disappeared.

That left Piffle – the Cinderella cat sleeping in the barn – and Arabella (full name Princess Arabella Tallulah) who lived up to her title, always trying to creep into the house and sleep on beds or armchairs. She treated Piffle like a second class citizen, chasing her away if Piffle came too close to any of us. Even though they were adoptive sisters, they didn’t get on at all.

Our kind French neighbour fed the two cats each time we visited family in England and he’d email us photos to show they were OK. This worked brilliantly until one summer when only pictures of Piffle arrived. Arabella, he told us in a worried email, was nowhere to be seen. Arriving home, our anxiety increased when Arabella failed to greet us; when we searched for her, we found her body in the garden.

Princess Arabella Tallulah

Ironically, from that time on, Piffle flourished and – much as I missed Arabella – my relationship with Piffle went from strength to strength. She started coming into the house, desperate to sleep on a lap or on a chair, and would inevitably resist being put outside at the end of the evening. Back to the barn for the night!

She became exceptionally cuddly, purring loudly when she was stroked, and loved being brushed or combed. From being such a feral cat who was terrified of all humans and would go to any lengths to avoid them, she’d evolved into a truly loving, soppy moggy. 

Her life changed, as mine did, in December 2017 when I left France and moved back to the UK. Unable to take Piffle with me, I asked a great friend from my writing group if he would adopt her as he already had four cats and was a renowned animal lover. To my great relief, he gladly agreed – and so now Piffle lives with her beloved Uncle Bob.

In true Cinderella fashion, her life has completely transformed. I receive regular letters from her (amazing handwriting!) in which I hear how she eats fresh meat every day, lies across Bob’s keyboard to prevent him from writing and – best of all – sleeps on his bed every night. She gets on well with the four other cats and suns herself by the swimming pool in summer. 

Knowing how contented she is makes up for how much I miss her – and I’ll be eternally grateful to Bob for giving her the life of luxury she must have been craving! So, as a tribute to my very special cat, Piffle Pages is named in her honour.

A photo of happy Piffle sent by Uncle Bob