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Essie Fox & The Last Days of Leda Grey

leda-greyI don’t often do author interviews on my blog, but here is a wonderful exception!  One of the best parts of being a writer is the opportunity to make friends with other writers whose work you love.  In honour of her upcoming appearance at Canterbury Christ Church, as part of the Writing Comes Alive series – please welcome, Essie Fox.
Essie Fox is the author of three gothic Victorian novels – The Somnambulist, Elijah’s Mermaid, and The Goddess and the Thief – rich, sensual, and dark tales of spiritualism, obsession, and madness.  With her fourth novel, The Last Days of Leda Grey, Essie Fox turns to the haunting world of silent cinema, a bewitching novel about an enigmatic film actress and the volatile love affair that left her a recluse for over half a century, in a story that spans the birth of British film to the long hot summer of 1976.  The Times describes the novel as  “luminous … with a sensuousness to the prose … Leda Grey’s world is utterly beguiling,” and recently selected The Last Days of Leda Grey as the newspaper’s October Book of the Month.
Want to know more?  Here’s a fantastically gothic book trailer for The Last Days of Leda Grey:  

Hi Essie!  I’m always intrigued to learn how a book begins.  What was the very first spark for you?   There were two separate sparks for this novel. The first was when I viewed a film that had been restored and digitized by the National Film Archives – Panoramic View of Morecambe Seafront: 1901. This film of everyday people taking their holiday promenade has such an astonishing clarity, and I felt myself drawn back in time – straight into that Edwardian Seaside town.  Please do view the film if you have a chance. If you do then I think you will understand how it was that I came to be entranced, even if I set my story in Brighton rather than Morecambe. It’s also quite a sobering thought that the joyful little boys we see running along as the camera moves, waving their hats and handerkerchiefs, would have been of an age to then grow up to fight in the trenches of WW1.
screen-shot-2016-11-30-at-13-22-03The second spark, really more of a jolt of electricity, was a poster I saw in a window front in a junk shop in the Brighton Lanes. This image of Theda Bara – a goddess and vamp of the silent screen – went on to inspire the seductive dark looks of my novel’s main character, Leda Grey: a young girl who grows up while dreaming of becoming a star of the silent screen.

The Last Days of Leda Grey seems a real love letter to cinema, though one tinged with grief, loss, tragedy.  What was it about cinema and its history that you hoped to capture? What did you know before you began – and what did you learn that pulled you in new directions?  I’ve always enjoyed a good old-fashioned film noir – especially the dramatic weepies in which Bette Davies starred which I often to used to watch with my mum, cuddled up on the sofa on wet weekends – and which, I’m very happy to say, I managed to reference in my book … just as I did some other films that have influenced me through the years.
5bf925b25a72e706c3f38deff64c8b07But, when writing my Victorian novels I also became very interested in the development of photography, and how that then led to moving film – the medium which has since gone on to have an enormous influence on so many aspects of our modern world. And yet, we know so little about the pioneers of early British film – and as Ed, who is a journalist who becomes obsessed with Leda Grey, says when he first hears of them: ‘Why don’t we know of this … I’d always assumed the silent films first started in America.’  Of course, Ed is speaking for me here. I’d imagined the Hollywood silents were all made in the 1920s, whereas the earliest moving films were Victorian and Edwardian – and they were made in England, in Europe, and other countries too – as well as in America.
On the whole these films were very short, lasting just a few minutes or more, which was due to the technical restraints of loading and editing the film. As well as dramatic features, there were lots of documentaries – the films called ‘actuals’ at the time, very much like Morecambe Seafront. The people filmed in these ‘actuals’ would then be given the chance to go and view themselves in theatres, or church halls, or even high street shops – anywhere that itinerant film makers could hire for setting up their screens, and then to charge admission fees when the general public flocked inside to view themselves with wonder – to see themselves flickering like ghosts – just as we can see them now. But now, those people all are dead.  I find that incredibly poignant.
georgemelies10-bigA great many early film makers were involved in the photographic trade, or had had theatrical careers. Magicians like George Melies grasped this exciting new medium to expand the tricks performed on stage. And what wonders were achieved on film – with double exposures or split screens allowing the most surprising effects. I found it quite fascinating myself, to exploit so many of these themes when imagining all the old noir ‘films’ that I write about in Leda Grey – films with which have the illusions of ghosts, or men who’ve had their heads chopped off which they then juggle round like balls. And, whether directors made comedies, or stories with eerier atmospheres, the early effects that they devised are often still employed in today. Cruder, yes. Of course they are. The technology has come so far. But, still, remarkable to see.

The Last Days of Leda Grey is particularly interested in time – years and eras and periods that endlessly telescope.  Chapter One begins with a young journalist hack becoming intrigued by the first glimpse of a silent film siren whose brother says she is “a fly in amber. In stasis. In inertia.”  While the book itself is fluid, with characters and settings that seem to exist in several times at once.   As alluded to in the answer above, I find it fascinating to see people who’ve been dead for years coming back to life through celluloid – and appearing so young and full of life in moving images on screens. It is magical. It is also sad to see those flickering shadowy lives and to know they are made of only light.  But, there’s something else that I explore, and that is iconic sexual appeal and how it can transcend the years; even if in real life it is transient. That’s the true glamour of film for me. The element of eternity; for as long as that film can be preserved – which is also a problem with old stock as the celluloid is so fragile, degrading and melting, and also – because of its flammability – a truly dangerous fire hazard.

Leda’s memories of her film career are filled with tricks and mysteries.  This has struck me in all your books, an interest in the mysterious, from the lure of Victorian spiritualism and the occult to the use of illusions, how easily believers can be duped, particularly in performance, whether onstage or in photography and film.  When Ed Peters announces, “I don’t believe that psychic stuff,” it made me wonder.  Where are you on the spectrum of believers and skeptics?  If you’d asked me twenty years ago, I’d probably say I believed in ghosts. I’ve certainly had some experiences that it’s very hard to rationalize. But, looking back, I wonder – was my mind seeing things in peculiar ways because of the grieving process, because I couldn’t bear to let my loved ones go away so soon?  This is something I was keen to explore in the character of Ed, who’s still grieving for someone dear to him when he first comes to meet with Leda Grey – perhaps too keen to transfer his need for love and affection onto a woman old enough to be his grandmother, and who – much to his confusion and shame – he is also sexually drawn towards when he sees her embodied in silent films.

As I grow older myself – as I lose those who are dear to me, I have been thinking more and more about how short our lives can be, aging and degrading just like that fragile celluloid. And how easily we forget the past; all those generations who came before whose knowledge and dreams and experiences can still enrich our lives today. I try to make some sense of this.  But it isn’t just general history, or the memories of friends and family that influenced my writing – it’s also the visual inspirations that made such an impact on my youth – with films like The Haunting, or Dead of Night which I saw when I was much too young; the terror of which has remained engrained and still chills me to this very day. There is also The Singing Ringing Tree, or The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe – East European and French Children’s TV Shows screened here in the 1960’s. They are both eccentric and gothic in tone, with a sense of darker other worlds. I was really quite obsessed with them, with their magic and their mystery. I’m sure they helped to ‘wire’ me, and to make the writer I am today.

img_0499What’s next for Essie Fox?  This is my fourth novel, with the first being published in 2011. To be honest, I think I need a break – a chance to get out in the world a bit more, to see the friends and family I’ve neglected over the past five years. My house also needs some attention if I want to stop it crumbling and ending up in the same state as White Cliff House in Leda Grey.  But having said that I already have at least three new ideas in mind. The question is can I resist the siren songs that are calling me?
One is a YA adventure with a contemporary character who finds himself flung backwards in time when he enters a sort of vortex.  The second is also contemporary – but will have another historical thread, with links to the local folklore from Herefordshire where I once lived.  The third is a political thriller, filled with sex and scandal. But I might need to consult a lawyer or two before I make a start on that!

The Last Days of Leda Grey was published by Orion Books on 3 November 2016 in the UK.  Essie Fox will be at the Sidney Cooper Gallery on Friday 8 December for Writing Comes Alive, for Canterbury Christ Church. Come on out and say hello!  For more information on Essie Fox, her first three Victorian thrillers, or to dive into the first chapter of The Last Days of Leda Grey, please visit her website:     

 

The Literary Sofa

sofa-argos-expand-feshwari-sofaYesterday, I was the special guest of The Literary Sofa host, Isabel Costello.  Somehow, my name got picked out of a hat and I won lunch!  And my, but it was wonderful. (I had the smoked swordfish carpaccio and a Tuscan bean & cavolo nero ribllita, since you ask, with tiramisu for pud.)  These, plus a very welcome glass of bubbles, were just the thing for a rainy day in London, though the highlight was, of course, a great few hours of book talk, where Isabel tried to add to my TBR stack and, admittedly, combat my reading funk.
The Literary Sofa is my favourite book blog.  Isabel is a perceptive and generous reader with her eye peeled to find the best new books – particularly those that arrive with less fanfare than others, and – much welcome – books in translation.  Her quarterly Sofa Spotlights are the place to go if you’re looking for book ideas.  Winter’s includes a new gothic tale by Essie Fox, debut novels by Fiona Melrose and Saleem Haddad, and books from Holland, Portugal and Korea.
41m5dwp-fl-_ux250_Isabel Costello is, of course, an author in her own right as well.  Her debut, Paris Mon Amour, has received a clutch of fantastic reviews, such as this one from Essie Fox’s blog.  Paris Mon Amour is digital-only from Canelo.  Click here to have a look and a download.  I, for one, can’t wait to read it.  Soon as my reading funk passes, I’ll be there like a shot!   (Here’s Isabel on a very smart sofa.  Sorry not to have a picture of the two of us to hand – too busy stuffing aforementioned carpaccio into gob, apparently…)
Thank you very much, Isabel – for lunch, great book chat & the marvellous Literary Sofa.  Cheers!

I’m failing and it’s OK

failureIt’s official… I’m a failure.  Yes, I am officially failing at NaNoWriMo.  I haven’t got a snowball’s chance of finishing 50K by 30 November.  Even if I could lock myself away in a tea chest, I know I am not going to write enough words.  Come the month’s end,  I’ll still be hovering somewhere in the late 20s, dancing like some deranged flapper toward a great depression.
But, you know what?
I don’t mind it.
No, really!
Sure, it would be lovely to be clocking up thousands of fantastic words every day.  When we dream of writing it happens like that.  Words flow like GIFS.
But sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes you have to stop to plan or edit, even when you want to be writing with gay abandon.  Sometimes life has other plans for your time.
The thing is, you keep going.  You don’t give up.  It doesn’t matter if everyone else has crossed the finish line, folded up their chairs, and gone home.  I’ll still be puffing my way around this 50K track, even if it takes me well into December.  Because nobody’s really looking at my word count but me.  And any words I type are more words than I had before.  Speaking of which, it’s time to get writing.  Join me?  I don’t mind if you’re failing, too. Let’s fail together!

NaNoWriMo – Day 5

screen-shot-2016-11-05-at-21-50-39We’re 5 days into NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month.  If you’ve begun it, how are you doing?
I’m behind.  And, strangely, I’m OK with it.  Because I know any words are better than no words, and a month is a long, long time.  I’m also OK with it because the good folks at NaNoWriMo have sent me a little cheer.  I’ve passed 5K – and then some.  I’m not as far along as I’d like to be, but I’m not as far behind as I could be – and isn’t that something to cheer about?  *cheers*
If you’d like to follow my NaNoWriMo progress (or lack thereof) why not pop over to the NaNoWriMo site I’ve set up for the Creative Writing Students at Canterbury Christ Church?  Today’s blog is Day 5:  I’m trying to blog daily there, though as you’ll notice there is no Day 4, you’ll quickly see how I’m getting on with that…  Still, the best way not to meet a goal is not to set one – and today, I’m all about the goal!  Onward!

Will you NaNoWriMo?

pumpkinAs the world turns with the once-yearly visits of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Great Pumpkin, so does the writer’s year turn on National Novel Writing Month, when each must decide if she is ready, willing, and able to write 50,000 words in 30 days.  Perhaps NaNoWriMo does not bring us coal or marshmallow peeps, but, as with the Great Pumpkin, it does ask us to believe.
NaNoWriMo has its fans – and it most certainly has its naysayers.  Whichever camp you find yourself in, most would agree that no one can – or should – write a novel in a month.  Certainly, no one should hope to whip out her 50,000 words from 1 – 30 November and send it to agents on 1 December, hoping for gold.
What you can do is write a fast and dirty draft.  What you can do is let yourself write faster than your fear.  What you can do is get the words down so that – after the marathon is over – you have the raw materials to begin the rewrite, where the gold might actually be.
Want to know how to get started?  The NaNoWriMo website has all you need to know, and I’ve also written a blog post about how it all works, over on a NaNo site for the Creative Writing department at Canterbury Christ Church University:
Still unconvinced?  Why not read these 38 Tips for Kicking NaNoWriMo in the Butt?  And why not try?  Why not make a pact with yourself to write harder – and faster – than you believe possible and see what you can do?  I’ll be doing NaNoWriMo this year – and if you are, I’ll see you there!

Spine & Story: the Power of Structure

img_1205If “plot is the route you take” and “story is the journey you make”, as Paul Ashton says at the BBC Writers’ Room, then what is structure?  The map?  The road?  And how can structure help us to build narrative drive when we’re writing – rewriting ?
Posted here is the Power Point for today’s workshop on structure the  with Save As Writers, “Canterbury’s Liveliest Writing Group”.   Please click through for a crash course in story structure:  how it can work, what (some of) the options are, and how the options can help writers – and readers.  There’s also a rather splendid video of Kurt Vonnegut and talk of wolves. What’s not to like?  Here’s the link to open and/or download the Power Point:  spine-and-story
Many thanks to today’s workshop writers:  it was a pleasure to meet you, however fleetingly!

Writing the synopsis, dammit

3df957109c143c58abc80ea52b24c873“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”  This line, often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, is actually from sportswriter Red Smith, but whoever said it must have been talking about the writing of synopses, surely.  They are a necessary evil and there’s no avoiding them.  Here’s why they’re necessary – and how to tackle them – or at least to make them a little less evil.
First, the basics.  A synopsis is one page of A4 ( or 8 1/2 X 11″).  No longer, though you can write single space and pull the font size down to 10, to squeeze more words on that single page.  They’re written in third person present tense, whether your novel is or isn’t, and it should still follow the “show don’t tell” rule of writing.  A synopsis will typically run 5 – 7 paragraphs, with the opening paragraph introducing the main character and theme – what the story is about – and why it matters.  The opening paragraph feels most like a “pitch” or a “blurb”, with the following paragraphs explaining the nuts-and-bolts of the story, the who-what-where-why-when.  Who interacts with the main character?  What is at stake?  Where does the action occur?  Why is the story being told right now – how urgent is the “when” of it?  These chapters should be written in proportion to their importance in the story – you don’t want to waste precious lines explaining backstory; you want to use them to show how the character makes choices and changes because of them – cause and effect.  The last chapter is the resolution – how does the book end, what is the biggest conflict/crisis, and how has the main character been changed by it?  There are no cliff-hangers in a synopsis.  It sounds easy enough, when you boil it down like that, doesn’t it?  But then, it comes time to actually write one, the evil rises again.
Why is it so hard?  Often, it can be because the synopsis exposes work that isn’t done or isn’t ready.  The Literary Consultancy says, “If it is because the story is insufficiently clear, persuasive or gripping, then more work needs to be done to get the manuscript into the kind of shape that would persuade an agent or editor to consider it further.” If we can’t boil the story down to one page, we don’t know the story well enough to tell it to ourselves.  In this vein, agent Jonny Geller said, via Twitter:  “A novel synopsis is deadening, – think of it as a letter to a friend about a great story you just heard.”  (His recent Ted Talk on What Makes a Bestseller is pretty great, too.)
Synopses exist for several people – and the most important of them is you, the writer.  When submitting your work, prospective agents ask for synopses as a means to see that you have finished the book and that you have an ending.  They don’t want to waste time on something that isn’t ready or that doesn’t make sense.  Once you have an agent, she will ask for a synopsis every time you send your work to her, mostly as a tool to understand what you are trying to do, particularly in early drafts.  Does your synopsis match your chapters?  Does it answer the questions of who-what-where-why-when?  Once your book is sold, that synopsis might still follow it around for a while, with editors using it to get a sense of flow, of what you’re attempting and if you’re achieveing it; it might become a marketing tool or an aid to the publicity team.  So, once you’ve finished your book it is essential that the synopsis is “right”.  But what is right?  And how do you know?  And how do you develop a synopsis over time and over drafts so that the synopsis is working for you at every stage?
6a00e54eced2e1883301b8d101de2c970c-150wiLet’s hear from the experts:  Emma Darwin, author and creator of the wonderful blog This Itch of Writing, not only admits to “really enjoy(ing) writing them,” she also defends them as an “extremely useful tool for developing your own work”.  Do read her excellent post on “the developmental synopsis” and how they help writers, at any stage, to assess narrative arc and the chainlinks of cause and effect.  For Darwin, the synopsis is not a “shrinking down” of the narrative onto one page, but a new story itself – a very short story about the story, as it were, with the interesting challenge to make this short-short somehow “feel” like the novel.  nm-wags-cover-mid-e1392744195840-131x210 Nicola Morgan has a very useful e-book, Write a Great Synopsis, which you can purchase and download from her site.  Here’s her pitch: Write a Great Synopsis covers the function of a synopsis, differences between outlines and synopses, requirements for different agents and publishers, finding the heart of your book, non-linear plots, sub-plots and long novels. It answers all the questions and confusions that writers have. I introduce you to my patent Crappy Memory Tool, explain the art of crafting a 25-word pitch, and demonstrate with examples.  For an overview of her synopsis process – plus shoes – she’s put a great powerpoint on her site from her 2014 talk at the Festival of Writing.  Lastly, read Chuck Wendig’s take on how to prepare for the query stage and how to entice an agent, with plenty of good advice on how to write a synopsis with all the spicy words you would expect of his excellent Terrible Minds blog.  His “EMBRACE THE HOLY TRINITY: HOOK, BODY, CLIMAX” is terrific advice.  Now, that’s probably enough avoidance from me. It really is time to rewrite that synopsis.

Feeding the Writing

15This month, I’m over on The Prime Writers’ website, curating blog posts with friend and fellow writer, Vanessa Lafaye.  Together, we’ve been looking at all the ways writers feed their writing, what they do that isn’t like writing – that helps the writing happen.  For some it’s music, playing and singing.  I was particularly taken with Jason Hewitt’s sense of how writing is symphonic, how he “scores” his scenes and chapters for that lift and loft.  For other Prime Writers it’s cooking and baking complicated concoctions.  For “culinary gothic” writer Martine Bailey, cooking opened the door to a new way of writing.  Today, our third in the series explores the connection between writing and running – as well as open water swimming – with Andrea Bennett, YA author Kerry Drewery, Jon Teckman – and me. The series will continue through the rest of June.  In the meantime, how do you feed your writing?

A Chat with Helen Dunmore

91qtjDrIqsLThis weekend, I was very pleased to speak with Helen Dunmore as part of WhitLit, Whitstable’s literary festival, now in its 3rd year.  Helen Dunmore is the award-winning writer of 14 novels; she won the inaugural Orange Prize, now the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction, and has been short-listed for every prize going.  Her newest book, Exposure, is a taut and classy Cold War thriller: I introduced it with a few sentences from her website:
“The Cold War is at its height.  A spy may be a friend or neighbour, colleague or lover.  At the end of a garden, in the pouring rain, a woman buries a briefcase deep in the earth.”  Really, that’s my kind of thriller.
Helen read a bit from the first chapter, which you can hear here on Radio 4, and then we plunged into a conversation on the themes of her novel and how her characters came into being.  “Concealment is an art,” one character says, and the novel is ripe with secrets.  Everyone is hiding something from someone else – and, often, from themselves.  Past identities are hidden – not forgotten, but only put away.  Buried, as the briefcase is, but always there beneath the surface.  The Cold War is filled with the ghosts of the past war, choices made, alliances formed, enemies who change.
Dunmore’s novels are often centred around wars – both during and after – from the WWI of The Lie & Zennor in Darkness, WW2 of The Siege & The Greatcoat, the Cold War years of House of Orphans and, now, Exposure.   I asked Helen where her love of war stories came from, and she commented that her family was a typical one where “no one mentioned the war,” but that she decided to “give up on things not being said”.  This Cold War is also one she can remember, and the atmosphere is thick with fog, smoke, fear and suspicion.  When we spoke about how the characters came to her, she mentioned that she spent a lot of time with characters before writing, particularly in “exploring a character’s solitude” – how they are when no one else is with them, how they are in their own heads.  Before writing, she said she “had to have a sense of them, their voices, how they move, how they think.  When their voice is off, you just know it.”  “People are deeply marked,” she said, and she is interested in the flaws of characters, in what they hide and why, in how their choices have changed them.
Cig2FEcXAAAG1nYHelen Dunmore’s writing life began as a poet, and she said that the sense of rhythm remained important to her, especially in her prose.  “Rhythm is in a character’s speech, how they speak, but also in the pace of a book.  Sometimes we want to race through a book, and sometimes we need to be slowed down.”  She commented that she hoped her books would have the rhythm of music, with all its cadences and varieties.
On her writing process, Helen remarked that she writes longhand for her first drafts, and then turns to the computer, as her handwriting is so bad. (This cheered me up significantly – as you’ll understand, if you’ve ever seen my handwriting.)  She “types like a demon” and writes a lot of drafts.  Her top tip is to “leave the work while it’s going well”, so that you won’t have to “start cold” the next day.  She writes in a studio, but is not averse to leaping out of bed when an idea comes, and said that her working days are full of variety – that reading, reviewing, researching and thinking are all a part of her life as a writer – that all of them feed her writing life.  It was a pleasure to speak with Helen Dunmore, and to read her newest novel.  Many thanks to WhitLit and to her publishers, Hutchinson.

The Way Through the Woods

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 13.30.43I’m currently the guest writer over on the splendid Just Write blog for Hodder & Stoughton.  Here, you’ll find all sorts of wonderful posts about writing, rewriting and managing fear, whether of the blank page or the writing itself.  Because I seem to have been rewriting and editing for the last year (OK, last 3 years…), I knew I wanted my blog to be about that process.  How do we hold a book in our heads for the long haul?  And what happens if we lose our way?  I’ve been working on 2 novels since my first novel was published, so I’ve learned a bit about trying to hold a book together – as well as losing my way.  Every book is its own animal, of course, but I hope the tips on my blog will be helpful – do please pop over and give it a read, as well as the other marvellous posts by friends at The Prime Writers – wonderful writers, all.  As for me, book 3 has just gone to my agent.  As they say – watch this space!

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