Sunday, 1 March 2015

THE BOOKS THAT BUILT SJ WATSON

SJ Watson, Second Life, 24th February 2015.
With thanks to Penhaligons, Prestat, Nyetimber
and Harper's Bazaar.

Imagine dreaming of your own second life, a parallel world in which you follow a path you always longed for yet felt, for whatever reason, was impracticable. Imagine then, waking up one day and realising that the dream has become a reality, in ways beyond your wildest imaginings. It's exactly what happened to SJ [Steve] Watson, whose first book, the psychological thriller, Before I Go To Sleep, published as he turned forty, went on to sell four million copies in 42 countries around the world and was turned into a film with Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth and Mark Strong. 


Such a successful debut sets a tremendously high bar for any follow up novel. Yet Watson need not worry - as we meet for The Books That Built Me, Second Life is riding high at number three in the Sunday Times Bestseller charts.

A nail-biting domestic noir, Second Life tells the story of Julia whose comfortable, conventional life begins to rapidly unravel as her own attempts to find her sister's murderer pull her inexorably into an addictive online world where no one is quite who they claim to be, least of all Julia herself. As Watson says, 'For me the title Second Life has several different connotations: what you might think of as a parallel life - you're one person at home with your family yet online you can be another person - and a sequential second life - I was one person and now I'm somebody else. I'm intrigued by that idea of can we ever really change, and is change ever so sudden that you can say, this is my second life, my third life, my fourth life and so on'.

Of course, with a first life as a respected NHS audiologist, and a second as that rare of rare beasts, a commercially successful novelist, it's tempting to ask if Watson doesn't regret following the writing dream a little earlier; 'For a second, I probably thought, why didn't I do this twenty-five years ago, but I also realised, I wasn't ready twenty five years ago. I'm just incredibly glad I made the jump when I made it.'

SJ Watson's Books That Built Me

Lord of the Rings: JRR Tolkien
This was given to me by a teacher after I got into CS Lewis and the Narnia Books. It's the book that first made me want to one day write and see my books on shelves. 

Written on the Body. Jeanette Winterson
I thought I read it when I was seventeen or eighteen but just discovered I was 21 when it came out. One of the books that rekindled my love of writing. So beautiful, and I loved the ambiguity of the ending, and of the sex of the narrator.

The Swimming Pool Library: Alan Hollinghurst 
I read this when I first started working in London, so I would have been about 22 or 23. I found this book incredibly moving and very sexy. Made even more affecting because I was working in Russell Square and socialising in the bars of Soho, where much of this book takes place, plus I read it during a hot summer. So I almost felt I was living the book, or wanted to at least.

Becoming a Man: Paul Monette*
Becoming a Man describes  a man struggling with his sexuality, trying to hide his same-sex attraction, the pain of unrequited love, and then finally seeing two men happy and in love and realising it was an option for him. I read it on the train on the way to visit my parents for the weekend, and on the Sunday before I came back to London I told them I was gay.

The Handmaid’s Tale: Margaret Atwood
I knew nothing about Atwood when I read The Handmaid's Tale when I was about thirty.  I finished it and thought ‘Wow’ and instantly decided I need to reconnect with my desire to be an author. This book began the process that saw me write Before I Go to Sleep.

In My Skin: Kate Holden
Read about seven or eight years ago. Picked it up, not knowing anything about it.  It’s a harrowing, yet beautiful memoir of a woman who became addicted to heroin which led her into prostitution and made me really think about what writing can do. It also really made me think about how society treats those (particularly women) who are sex workers. Later I met Kate as we share a publisher and she’s wonderful and funny.

After Dark: Haruki Murakami
Currently I’m loving Murakami, and this book kicked it off. I like it because it’s short and weird, and it really makes me think about what writing can be and the places it can go. 


Above all, enormous thanks to Steve Watson for being such a marvellous guest - may Second Life continue to leap up the bestseller charts.

*Both Steve and I had great difficulty finding a copy of Becoming A Man. However, Waterstones Piccadilly has confirmed it has copies in stock.

And, huge thanks to Prestat for chocolate for the guest's goody bags and for the author gift, Harper's Bazaar for supporting The Books That Built Me, to Penhaligon's for scenting the space, to Nyetimber for the pre-event drinks reception. Last but not least, huge thanks to The Club at Cafe Royal for hosting the Books That Built Me salon series.

The next Books That Built Me is with Andrew O'Hagan on 17th March. Tickets available through eventbrite by clicking the big Books That Built Me logo on the top right of this page.


Friday, 27 February 2015

THE LONG DARK TEATIME OF THE SOUL

I've been travelling for work a lot recently.

If I tell you I flew into Innsbruck on Sunday, out of Salzburg on Tuesday and in and out of Milan tomorrow (I should say today), you'll say, how impossibly glamorous, but it's just making me feel as if I've been shaken out of a cereal packet from a great height.

Partly the problem for me is the lack of sleep - the three days I spent in Austria kicked off with a four am alarm call on Sunday morning and a succession of late nights and early mornings. The trip to Milan is another four am call, so it's utterly dandy that, despite having gone to bed early, I find I'm as awake as if hooked to a caffeine drip, super-stressed and hyper-anxious, riven with existential angst and a clawing inability to locate myself in the here and now. 

Of course, small dark hours bring large dark thoughts - all the positives have fled, I'm paralysed by panic, and once again I'm Chicken Licken, convinced the sky will fall in. 

And if you told me the sky wasn't falling in, it was only an acorn that had dropped on my head, I wouldn't believe you.






Thursday, 26 February 2015

THE BOOKS THAT BUILT ME WITH ANDREW O'HAGAN

Picture credit: Tricia Malley.Ross Gillespie www.broaddaylightltd.co.uk
T
wice nominated for the Booker Prize, Andrew O’Hagan is one of Britain’s finest authors and essayists. 

His latest novel, The Illuminations, tells the story of former documentary photographer Anne Quirk and her beloved grandson Luke, serving in Afghanistan as a Captain in the Royal Western Fusiliers, and is his triumph. 

In the writing of it, ‘ writes Elizabeth Day in The Observer, ‘O’Hagan has cast a shimmering light on love and memory, life and loss and on the secrets we keep from those closest to us, even from ourselves.’

Do join The Books That Built me on 17th March at The Club at Café Royal, where O’Hagan will share the books that have inspired and influenced his writing life, and share the stories behind The Illuminations.

Eventbrite - THE BOOKS THAT BUILT ME: ANDREW O'HAGAN 17TH MARCH 2015


Friday, 20 February 2015

WOMEN, GIRLS, CHICKS, BROADS

Last night I hosted a Q&A with the owner of new luxe fashion brand Tabitha Webb at the Design Museum as part of the Women, Fashion, Power programme.

Tabitha had an enviable and successful career in advertising but threw in the towel when she learned the gargantuan size of her Saatchi overlord's annual bonus and determined to found her own fashion business. Everyone said 'You're brave' (which is friend code for 'you're mad'), but Tabitha's response was to say that she wasn't brave to leave, they were brave to stay put, and now that I've set up my own show, I completely get what she means. 

Anyway, the spirit of entrepreneurship is strong in Tabitha, and after an accessories business and a slightly ill-fated collaboration with Danni Minogue called Project D, she has a compact yet beautifully considered collection of wearable clothes, a boutique in Belgravia and a website, and numbers the Duchess of Cambridge, Pippa Middleton and Miranda Kerr amongst her customers. I feel that Tabitha has embraced the famous Yves St Laurent dictum, 'what is important in a dress is the woman who is wearing it', and her clothes are designed to make you feel a happy and fabulous and confident and a well-dressed version of yourself rather than a clothes horse for a designer's rigid aesthetic. Tabitha also hosts salons in the boutique every Tuesday, where women can have a glass of champagne and listen to someone like Glamour's Jo Elvin talk about her life and inspirations. I like this, it's all very friendly, as fashion should be but rarely is.

Anyway, over supper at the Blueprint Cafe after the exhibition and before the talk, I butted in halfway through a conversation Tabitha was having with a friend of mine, academic and star of the Channel 4 show, Four Rooms, Wendy Meakin, about whether one should call oneself a woman or, as Tabitha had it, a girl (now that I've started this anecdote I realise I actually have no idea how this vociferously good-natured debate came about.) Wendy, who was urging me to read the whole of The Second Sex, not the Vintage edit I posted about the other day, maintained no other word than 'woman' is suitable for a person of our gender. Tabitha thinks the word 'woman' very silly indeed and calls herself 'girl','chick', 'bird' and so on. I would say 'woman' because I'm too superannuated to use 'girl' unless prefixed by 'in the olden days, when I was a', but I can see that it can sound a bit seventies yoni-worshipper out of context. Maybe not - there was a stunning picture of a young Germaine Greer in the Women Fashion Power exhibition, and I'd never dare call her a girl or a chick or a broad or a dame or a lady -but then she was rather fierce and wrote things like 'if you think you're emancipated, you might consider tasting your own menstrual blood - if it makes you sick you've a long way to go, baby', in The Female Eunuch. Yikes.
 So I'm perfectly happy with 'woman' and i think 'girl', 'bird', 'chick', 'broad', etc are also perfectly ticketty boo if that's what you prefer. I also confess I quite like it when they call me 'Madam' in John Lewis. I don't like to be referred to as a lady (because it sounds so terribly hostess trolley), and there seems to be a rather irritating habit creeping in of substituting 'a female' for 'a woman' which always sounds very police procedural. I was trying to find an example of the use of 'a female' when I fell across this from Campaign magazine 'Maguire said that one of her former bosses sold her script to a client, but changed her name to Mickey[from Vicki] because the client didn't want a female working on the account', and I was so shocked by the reminder of the appalling sexism rife in the advertising industry, I quite forgot to mind about the 'a female' thing. When you next watch a commercial on tv, remember that only 3% of top Ad agency creative directors are women, fewer than in agencies in the 1930's, and ask yourself how a predominantly male lens affects the way we are sold stuff. I also heard recently of a client getting very wigged about some magazine copy because it was 'too feminist': when men no longer occupy 85% of senior executive roles, and when the pay gap between senior men and women no longer stands at 35% (this widens even more after 45, by the way) you can tell me something is 'too feminist'. Not before.

Of course, I've now taken myself down the path of rant and wandered off the point - where was I going with this, I'm not sure, but anyway, Women Fashion Power: not a multiple choice...

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

I LET YOU GO - CLARE MACKINTOSH


When I began Mrs Trefusis, eleventy three trillion years ago, I fell across some wonderful women bloggers, and their posts about the quotidien stuff entertained and inspired me, and made me want to keep on writing, to be amongst their number. We ended up in lists like the Tots 100, and became known as 'mummy bloggers'  because occasionally the children were hauled into service when otherwise short of material, but I'm not sure I particularly loved the moniker, and I wasn't absolutely mad about the consequences, the barrowfuls of emails from PR's inviting one to try a new range of fishfingers or road test a new potty or review a special yoghurt with hidden vegetables or something. 
Anyway, one of the bloggers I liked enormously was Clare Mackintosh - she was funny and wry, but also capable of breaking your heart when she wrote incredibly movingly of the death from meningitis of her tiny son. Fast forward six years, and whilst I've been fiddling about with the internets, she's given up the day job (she spent twelve years with the police force), made a living from writing, founded Chipping Norton Literary Festival, and landed a two book deal with Little, Brown. Chapeau! as Trefusis Minor likes to say. 

 (I like to say, Mrs Trefusis, you're a mega slouch and should delete twitter and all its satanic works and finish writing The Great Unfinished Novel - although, imagine if I do finish it, and discover it's abysmal, and I've wasted six years on it... )

I Let You Go is a psychological thriller - a woman's five year old son is killed in a hit and run, and she retreats to an isolated cottage to try to deal with her grief, but of course, the past, as it's wont to do, catches up with her. 

I'm twenty pages in and it's already enormously gripping stuff, and what's really quite wonderful is that the 'voice' I liked so much when Clare was blogging is very much in evidence - it's truthful and hugely engaging, with a deft, polished, pacy style.

I can't quite bear to put it down, and I rather suspect it's one of those books that has you reading until the wee smalls, but I must save it until I've finished cramming for SJ Watson's Books That Built Me next week.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

FEMINISM

What does it mean to be a feminist in 2015? 

It feels to me as if feminism now has a more practical expression than the feminism of my university years, which was driven by a radical, separatist ideology, which neither felt terribly sisterly, nor very helpful, although I remember being hugely engaged in the theory. Andrea Dworkin was our idol, fierce, polemical, radical and of enormous integrity, she was also much misunderstood and much maligned. 
I think it has taken me more than twenty years to understand the truth of what she was saying. But then, I've never been much cop when it came to ideology. I like people better than principles.

Anyway, twenty five years later, I am more optimistic about active, practical feminism: in the intervening years I've quietly despaired when female power was repackaged and sold back to women as raunch culture, or when (very enjoyable) shows like Sex and The City were perceived to be 'sisterly' and 'empowering' yet were still predicated on a relationship with a man - Cinderella could only find validation in society if she found her prince.

Yet now, quite wonderfully, social media has given women a voice: it's identified a collective that previously existed only in pockets. We no longer feel alone. Social Media has helped to give feminism scale. Popular writers like Caitlin Moran have taken feminism out of the margins and put it centre stage. Exceptional businesswomen like Helena Morrissey use their power to make other women powerful too - her Thirty Percent Club has had a productive impact on the composition of boards in the UK's top companies, and if women's representation at a very senior level is still lamentably small, I'm still encouraged by the step-change Morrissey has driven at board level. In the six years since I began Mrs Trefusis, I've discovered a marvellous, supportive, female world of blogs and bloggers and twitterers who were (are) sisterly, and generous, and supportive. And offline, magazines like ELLE reclaim 'the F word' for a new generation and Harper's Bazaar talks openly about 'The Sisterhood'. 

It feels new. Positive. A reason to hope. I like it. 

Of course, these are small green shoots rather than evidence of dramatic cultural change. Social media may have given women a platform, but it also gives a voice to trolls and I am angered and horrified by the extraordinary abuse my sisters face when they poke their head above the parapet. It's forty-five years since Germaine Greer wrote 'women have very little idea of how much men hate them' in The Female Eunuch, and I don't think I ever believed her, until now, until one sees the rage and hate unleashed by something as anodyne as suggesting there might be a famous woman on a bank note.

It's also forty five years since the Equal Pay Act, but women still only earn 85p for every pound a man earns. Women may have a voice, but we have yet to succeed in demanding that men listen when we say equal work means equal pay.  

But still, I am not despondent: the sisterhood exists, & there seems to be a new mood. Although I am quite the Pollyanna, I believe that the pace of change is gathering and one day we will live in a society where women have equal rights with men, where the playing field is level, where the narrative isn't driven solely by the needs of 49% of the population.

Perhaps that's why it's important to keep reading the sacred texts of feminism - not, perhaps, Dworkin or even Greer, but De Beauvoir and Wollstonecraft and Wolf. 

We are moving forwards, but we shouldn't forget that we are still fighting. 

Friday, 13 February 2015

READING BOOKS

When I was an undergrad, I had in my head a clear distinction between good books and bad books. The former were 'texts' to untie, their author was dead, they were frequently voice driven, rather than plot. These books were the literary equivalent of the gym: enjoyment was secondary to the good it was doing you.

I read English, there were a lot of texts to get through. I once deliberately selected several terms worth of poetry seminars purely because poems tended not to run to hundreds of pages.

So there were 'texts'  and then there were 'reading books': one could never spin an essay out of a reading book, and only rarely would a 'text' keep one awake all night, unlike a really gripping airport novel which has one turning the pages in a bug-eyed and frantic effort to discover whether the heroine gets the man of her dreams, or if the baddie will be caught by the detective before the hostage perishes, or if there really was a sixth secret member of the Cambridge Five.

My bookshelves were segregated along these lines - or rather, in my tiny room at university, only the improvingly literary books were on display. Under my bed were concealed piles and piles of romances, detective stories, spy thrillers and other pulp fiction, and I was always rather terrified they might tumble out, like bottles clanking in an alcoholic's handbag.

We were vociferously critical of the Western canon and Leavis' Great Tradition (a term's seminar on Modernism ground to a halt, quite rightly, because Woolf had been omitted and there were no women represented at all). We talked very airily in those days about high brow and low brow culture, deciding that no-brow was where we wanted to be and that all books were texts and should be evaluated on their own merits. And I read, and read, and read and debated the set texts and wrote essays pulling Baudelaire, Eliot and Proust into one big literary hug, and yet other essays about patriarchy and the gothic, and graduated and spent a year decompressing by reading nothing but Jilly Cooper and Barbara Cartland.

'for there's nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.'

Yet, it is true that some books are better than others, and it doesn't always follow that they're more enjoyable, as Andy Miller's tremendous and terribly funny comparative reading of the Da Vinci Code and Moby Dick in 'The Year of Reading Dangerously' shows. Some books are easier than others - Nancy Mitford doesn't require the effort of George Elliot, for instance. And some books are more disposable than others - read Emma or Jane Eyre, or even Barchester Towers again and there's something new to discover within the comfortable and familiar narrative, but re-read Lee Childs and all you'll wish for is that you'd remembered to pack more than one book. However, some books repay the effort of reading them a thousandfold - Anna Karenina is one of these, as is Parade's End and Vanity Fair. None of those books is especially challenging in the way that, say, Ulysses is, but each of them has something important to say about how narrative and character are properly constructed, and once you've committed yourself to them, they're a compulsive read.

Depressingly, it seems to follow that the more challenging and yet more rewarding a book is, the fewer copies it will sell, while utter rubbish flies off the shelf in seemingly infinite quantities (Fifty Shades of 'Holy Crap he wants to spank me' Grey, anyone?), and the publishing industry runs off chasing the tail of that particular squirrel until the W.I decides to publish 'erotica' and everyone realises it's time to stop. But that's the same in every market, and it probably only feels rather sadder in publishing than in the perfume world because I'm such a book zealot. I think the act of reading fiction is like discovering the X on a treasure map and starting to dig, in the certain knowledge that there's a chest of Spanish doubloons waiting for the thud of your spade.

So, now, in the era of Kindle, I confess I'm still a book snob - I still make a distinction between 'reading' books and books that require me to push myself a bit. Now, as then, I'm a voracious and indefatigable reader of both kinds, though I'm more likely to read the former on kindle than keep them under the bed. I write this staring rather guiltily at a vast pile of new fiction, all of which must wait until I've finished cramming for SJ Watson's Books That Built Me on 24th February. Through his choices, I'm rediscovering Jeanette Winterson, and the intense pleasure of her prose feels as if my spade has broken right through the wood of the treasure chest, and I'm surrounded by pearls, rubies, pirate gold and all other manner of precious jewels. I'll store it all in my word-hoard.