Monthly Archives: September 2015

My Book Deal Moment

One of the most nerve wracking experiences of my life was waiting to find out whether or not my first novel would be published. Forget ‘A’ levels and Finals, or even buying a house – this was a whole new and acute level of angst.

By the time my first novel, The Medici Mirror, was sent out to publishers, I had already been working on it for four years. The first two were spent writing a draft, then rewriting it, until I considered it was good enough to attract an agent. When I had finally gathered sufficient courage to send the book out, I was lucky enough to get an offer of representation from Luigi Bonomi of LBA. The next two years were spent working with him on the novel. I rewrote large sections of it. And by large, I mean large. He’d tactfully described the last half of it as ‘plot light’ – perhaps a nice way of saying that the story had lost its way! So I wrote and rewrote again, polished and refined, until Luigi felt the manuscript was ready.

The day finally arrived, the much longed for yet still terrifying day, when Luigi pushed the button on his computer and jettisoned The Medici Mirror into the inboxes of fourteen of London’s finest publishers. ‘Keep your fingers crossed,’ he told me then. ‘It’s going to be a nerve wracking time.’ Little did I know.

During the days that followed I somehow managed to get myself to work. I sat in the quiet darkness of a TV recording studio, paying scant attention, and worried, silently. All those warnings that I had heard over the last four years crowded into my mind. ‘You’re crazy to write a novel’. ‘It’s so hard to get published’. ‘It’s a large chunk of your life to invest in such a speculative venture’. I tried to still the voices of the naysayers as I sat in that oppressive darkness and instead attempted to focus on all of the positives. My agent saw something in my writing. That was encouraging. And people got published all the time. So why couldn’t it be me?

Two days in and Luigi forwarded the loveliest email from an editor at Preface, a part of Random House. Her name was Rosie de Courcy. She had loved the novel and wanted to publish it. My heart leapt. I almost fainted. Was it a done deal then? Unfortunately, my agent explained, it wasn’t as simple as that. Rosie now had to persuade the whole team at Random House to get on board.

My elation slipped into despair. That would be a tall order, a small voice inside me said. Better not get your hopes up too much. For the next fourteen long days, the rejections dribbled in. There were a few very near misses but no-one had said yes. I began to lose faith. But I knew that Rosie was still out there rallying her troops and that gave me heart. Two weeks after her first email, Rosie sent an offer through.

When I read it, I whooped loudly in the darkness of that recording studio. We had to halt and do a swift re-record – I got a black look from the producer. But I didn’t care. My sense of relief and elation was so intense. And Rosie de Courcy at Preface had offered to publish not one, but two, of my books – The Medici Mirror and my second novel, Beyond the Sea.

As soon as I could I called my partner and told him. Finally we had got there. ‘I’ll put the champagne on ice,’ he said. ‘We’ve got something remarkable to celebrate.’


FINAL The Medici Mirror VIS


beyond the sea

My Top Five Books

I hesitate to say that these are my five favourite books of all time – that choice is perhaps too difficult to make – but they are five of my very favourite books. So on that basis here they are:

  1. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. This strange and surreal tale follows the life of everyman Toru Okada, after first his cat, and then his wife, disappear. Okada’s mundane world, in which he cooks spaghetti, drinks beer and listens to jazz, is suddenly transformed by a succession of exotic and menacing characters who propel him on a dangerous odyssey of self-discovery. Set in contemporary Japan, still haunted by the brutality of its past, it is a tale of love and war, dreams and reality, of what has been lost and can never be recovered. It is a powerful, philosophical story, told in Murakami’s perfectly pared down prose. And I promise, if you read it, you will never look at a well in quite the same way.Wind Up Bird Chronicle
  2. Under the Skin is Michel Faber’s first novel and has one of the most exciting opening chapters I’ve ever read. Isserley, driving through the Highlands of Scotland, in her decrepit little car, is eyeing up hitch-hikers. But not just any old hitch-hiker will do. She wants a buff one, a hunk on legs, as she says. What does she want them for? As the novel takes off, and that question is answered, the reader is taken on a journey they could never have predicted. A twisty turny sci-fi fantasy adventure, it’s a wild rip roaring ride.Under the skin
  3. The Passion is my favourite of Jeanette Winterson’s novels. An eclectic blend of history, fantasy and dark fairy tale, it follows the intertwining paths of Henri, a young French soldier cook, tasked with satisfying Napoleon’s immense appetite for chickens and Villanelle, the web footed daughter of a Venetian boatman, who miraculously can walk on water but who has lost her heart to the mysterious Queen of spades. ‘Trust me. I’m telling you stories,’ is the self-referential refrain the characters repeat. And trust me when I tell you that this story of love, betrayal and passion, exquisitely told in Winterson’s spare yet poetical prose will not disappoint.The Passion
  4. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is one of the best ghost stories ever. At its heart is the governess, despatched to an isolated house in Essex, to care for two young orphans. She soon begins to suspect that the children are being haunted by the ghosts of her predecessor, Miss Jessel and her lover Peter Quint. Written from the perspective of the governess, the novel’s brilliance lies in the way it sheds doubt on the reality of the ghosts, questioning instead her sanity. James ratchets up the tension and the book’s thrilling denouement still haunts me to this day. Turn of the Screw.2
  5. Owen Meany, small in stature, with a damaged larynx and a permanently high-pitched voice, is the unlikely hero of my favourite John Irving novel (A Prayer for Owen Meany). At the outset of the book, Owen hits a foul ball at a baseball match, which accidentally strikes and kills his best friend’s mother. But Owen doesn’t believe in accidents. He believes he is God’s instrument. A story of faith, fate and friendship, comic and tragic by turns, this is a perfectly plotted novel in which the ending, although foreshadowed throughout, feels not predictable but simply inevitable. Irving himself said, ‘I have the last chapters in my mind before I see the first chapters…I usually begin with endings, a sense of aftermath, of dust settling, of epilogue. I love plot, and how can you plot a novel if you don’t know the ending first?’a prayer for owen meany

Where I write…

I write in the loft at the top of the house – a warm, bright, white space, with only a few things on the walls and very little furniture (a desk, a chair and some bookshelves).


Every day, after I’ve had breakfast, I head up there, switch my computer on and go straight into Word before I can get too distracted by other things – Facebook, twitter, other people’s books, the view through the big window, what the neighbours are doing etc. I remember reading an article by David Mitchell in which he said he practically runs to his laptop every day and opens the file of his novel without asking himself whether he’s in the mood to work on it. Only when the words are on the screen is he safe. Up until that moment the possibility for diversions are endless. I know what he means and I try to follow his example.


In an attempt to avoid distraction, my desk faces a wall. I don’t think it would work that well for me if it was in front of the window – I can imagine all too well staring vacantly through the glass for most of the day. Besides my laptop, my desk has very few objects on it: three beautiful rocks I picked up from a beach on the west coast of Iona when I visited for research for Beyond the Sea, an old hurricane jar containing a candle, paper and pens, a dictionary, thesaurus and other research books in a pile. Other than that it’s empty. However, there is a notice board on the wall above my desk, full of notes, quotes, pictures – black and white and colour – and postcards; things which are meant to remind me, inspire me and occasionally console me as I write! There’s a beautiful poem up there called Parting by Taniguchi Buson. Simple yet very touching:


For me who go,

For you who stay –

Two autumns.

But of everything on that board a black and white photo of my parents on the beach at Scarborough in 1960 is my favourite. I love it, faded and crinkled as it is, and the visible lines running across it only make me feel a greater sense of nostalgia. My dad is in the middle, my mum on the right.




Behind my desk are bookshelves containing the novels and short stories of some of my favourite writers: Haruki Murakami, Michel Faber, Jeanette Winterson, Banana Yoshimoto, to name but a few.


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There are also a couple of overloaded shelves packed full of ‘to be read’ books. I try not to turn around and pick any of them up while I’m writing and generally I’m pretty good about it. But occasionally, if the words aren’t flowing too well, I might swivel round in my chair and accidentally find myself reading someone else’s words all day. No bad thing. As long as it doesn’t happen too often!


The Keepers

Ten miles from shore, perched on the low black rock, the lighthouse was a hazy smudge of white in the gloaming. Isolated, indistinct, hovering somewhere between sea and sky, an as-yet unlit beacon of hope and salvation, it waited in the gathering darkness for its keepers to go to work.





8 pm


‘Come on, slow coach.’ Stan’s voice was loud, jovial, bouncing off the rough granite and echoing up the tower until it was swallowed by the growing sound of the wind. Something big was on its way and no messing. He gazed down at George, who was following behind him.


‘I’m a coming,’ the older keeper muttered. But instead he stopped and looked through the small window. Outside the sky was feverish. Clouds whirled at dizzying speed and below the waves churned, seeming to double in size as he watched. He remembered how Stan, when he was new to the service, had asked a number of times whether the lighthouse might topple in a gale. He’d been afraid, George had sensed, although the question had always been put light heartedly. Impossible, George had answered over and over, yet he suspected that the fear remained. But rather than give in to it, Stan laughed instead. That’s what he always did. He laughed at what scared him. And, somehow, that always made George feel better.


‘Come on, will you,’ Stan called. ‘It’ll be dark and the bloody light still won’t be lit.’ He spun on his heels and almost overbalanced. Placing his hand on the shallow ceiling for support, he avoided grabbing the brass handrail.


‘I’m a coming,’ George said again, resuming the long march upwards. But he too refrained from touching the railing.


It was unspoken but nonetheless they had reached agreement on it. Fingerprints don’t polish themselves out, after all.


12 am to 4 am


Strictly speaking this was George’s watch – his turn to keep the light unclogged and burning. But Stan invariably kept him company. He’d never needed to sleep much, or so he said. For which George was silently yet eternally grateful. This watch, the middle, was the worst. A strange time where, if a man was alone at the top of this tower, the gloomy imaginings that were anchored deep during the day could float free. He could find himself believing that he was the only man left in the world and everyone he cared about had disappeared. George swallowed and watched the sweep of the lamp. It flashed twice, puncturing the blackness for a few seconds. Then there was only the unbroken dark.


‘Bloody Nora.’ Stan burst through the gallery doors, slamming them shut behind him. ‘It’s going to take all night for this one to blow itself out.’ He crossed the lamp room and began scribbling notes in the logbook. After a moment he looked up. ‘Now stop with them bad thoughts, Georgie. Suze wouldn’t like it. A waste of bloody time, she’d say.’


Yes, she would have said that. In spite of himself George smiled and nodded. He looked at Stan: the shaved head, the strong stout body, the mermaid tattoo on his forearm that he’d got in prison. Yet it was curiously fitting for this, his new life, the one he’d fled to afterwards. The watery exile that seemed to suit him so well. At first George hadn’t been sure. But now he was fairly confident that Stan wouldn’t return to that life. A sense of relief flowed through him at the thought of it.


‘And guess what? Spot on I was with the wind force. Just from the feel of it on my cheek out there. Like you said, it’s something you come to know. Taught me well, you did.’ Stan winked at George as he sat down opposite him. ‘All I’ve got to do now is learn how to thrash you at chess. But I think that might take a bit longer.’


‘Check mate,’ said George, moving his rook with finality over the board between them. Then he started laughing. It was a warm, hearty laugh, but it caught in his throat and before long he was coughing, unable to stop.


The shadow of a frown crossed Stan’s face but it was gone before George could register it. ‘You’d better get that checked out when we go ashore,’ said Stan, reaching over and patting him on the back.


‘I’m fine, it’s nothing,’ said George, taking a swig of tea from his mug. ‘Gloating never suited me, that’s all.’


Stan grinned, looking at the old man. He was neatness incarnate, always polished, suited and booted, never a grey hair out of place. And he was a good bloke, taken him under his wing when he first arrived, for which God knows he’d been thankful though he found it hard to say. He’d worried a lot, after Suze died, about whether Georgie would retire from the service. But he thought it was unlikely now. Instead he worried about the other things that might take Georgie away.


Stan laughed loudly, seemingly at nothing, disturbing the quiet that had settled upon the room. ‘Well, Georgie, we’d better hunker down and wait this storm out. I’ll make another pot of tea while you set the board up again.’


‘Right you are then,’ said George. ‘And bring some of those chocolate digestives back with you. Then,’ and he began chuckling, ‘we’ll see if you can do any better this time.


Stan headed to the spiral staircase, with a quick backward glance before he began the race down. George was on his feet, keeping vigil, inspecting the lamp, nurturing the light that spilled into the darkness both in the lighthouse and beyond.


I have been asked a lot about the setting of Beyond the Sea, and why I chose the Hebrides as the landscape in which the action of the novel plays out.


Interestingly, while the book emerged from a single image of a woman, her hair turned white in grief, standing alone by the sea, a lighthouse in the near distance behind her, I think I probably knew even then, way back in the beginning when I didn’t know much else, that the woman was standing on a beach in the Hebrides. It’s a part of the world that I love. I’m drawn to its wildness, the stark rawness of its beauty, the fact that the weather can change in an instant, sunshine becoming rain becoming sleet.


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It is brutal, elemental, timeless – craggy mountain ranges, desolate moorlands, restless ever shifting seas. And yet, I feel there is also something redemptive, magical almost about this landscape. The sea takes away, and yet it also gives back. It is an endless, eternal pattern. The sea is often death, but it is also life. So the remote fringes of the British Isles, the untamed edges of civilisation, seemed a very natural and fitting backdrop for a woman touched by devastating loss, her emotions as turbulent and fast changing as the winds or the tides, but perhaps moving slowly towards redemption.


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The lighthouse was also crucial in establishing the mood of the novel. To me, lighthouses evoke images of keepers tending a light at night, keeping vigil during both calm and storm. They are symbols of sanctuary, of hope, of light in the darkness. Yet they are simultaneously the quintessential symbol of loneliness and isolation – solitary towers aloft in the middle of the ocean, battered by the elements. Therefore it too seemed to be a wholly appropriate place for the woman to live – a very visual image of her emotional state.


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As I started to plot the novel in more detail, the woman became Freya, whose husband and son vanish at sea the year before the novel begins. She returns to the lighthouse they once called home, seeking solace, trying to move beyond her grief. Beyond the Sea is the story of her journey. But it also tells the story of the Hebrides, the lighthouse and the sea – all characters in their own right.