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Words and Pictures

I am a writer resident in the UK but originally from Florida.

My second novel, ‘At First Light’, is available to pre-order in the UK.   Inspired by real events, it is an epic love story and unsolved murder, set in 1920s Key West, Florida. This is a companion story to ‘Summertime’ but the books can be read in either order.  It will be published in hardback on 1 June 2017.

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I did it.

Key West, Florida, 1993. When a Ku Klux Klan official is shot in broad daylight, all eyes turn to the person holding the gun: a 96-year-old Cuban woman who will say nothing except to admit her guilt.

It was me.

1919 Mixed-race Alicia Cortez arrives in Key West exiled in disgrace from her family in Havana. At the same time, damaged war hero John Morales returns home on the last US troop ship from Europe. As love draws them closer in this time of racial segregation, people are watching including Dwayne Campbell, poised on the brink of manhood, struggling to do what’s right.

And then the Ku Klux Klan comes to town…

It was me. I did it. Here is my story.

Inspired by real events, At First Light weaves together a decades-old grievance and the consequences of a promise at dawn on a dark day in American history.

Continue reading “Words and Pictures”

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The Last Post

On the twenty-eighth of February this year, we lost our fabulous, unique Vanessa. Almost a month later when family and friends gathered to say goodbye to her, a few people approached me and said, ‘What about a final entry for her blog?’

This blog, ‘Living While Dying’, which she wrote primarily to raise awareness of the reality of incurable secondary breast cancer, was read by many in the months prior to her death. Here, she wasn’t backward at coming forward, sharing her anger and frustrations at having her plans, hopes and dreams all eradicated by the disease that she referred to as her ‘stalker.’ If you haven’t read the earlier entries, I urge you to. It’s not always an easy read but, by Christ, it’s a humbling one – and her words, just like those in her novels, have a powerful reach. And the more I thought about it, the more I agreed that the blog deserved one more entry, and Vanessa’s ‘superman’, her husband, James, agreed that I could write one. So, I’m posting this final entry on Sunday 17th June which would have been her fifty-fifth birthday.

For those who have read it before, you may remember that she used to start every post with the same introductory format, describing exactly what she was going through at that time. I’m quite sure she wouldn’t mind that I’m using the same approach to best explain how those who knew her feel today on her birthday:

SYMPTOMS: Heartache – tenderness in the top left area behind the ribs. Tightness, discomfort, in the solar plexus.

PAIN LEVEL: Variable, dependant on the memories that hit.

TREATMENT: Remember her laugh, that slightly irreverent chuckle. Remember her telling you not to cry. Just remember her; and when you do, make sure her image is smiling.

FEATURED EMOTIONS: Sadness, anger, denial, determination, gratitude, awe.

Yes, we’re all of us, still sad and angry that her life was cut far too short by the ravages of that bloody awful disease. Yes, there are many days when we need denial and pretend she’s not gone. But mostly, when I think of Vanessa, the strongest emotion I have is one of admiration for her determination and deep gratitude that I knew her. Fifty-five… If she were here for this birthday, she’d probably use one of her favourite expletives and create an alliterative sentence: ‘I’m a fifty-f***ing-five-year young fledgling,’ she’d say before whispering something rude to her stalker…

I first met her only a few years ago through our writing group, The Prime Writers, and ours was one of those fast-growing, yet vital friendships that we both knew was a rare find.  I felt as if I’d known her forever and was so grateful to have this woman whom I could talk to about everything and anything, but particularly, the strange world of published writers that we both found ourselves navigating. We beta read each other’s books as we wrote them; cheered each other on when we’d done something brilliant and pulled one another back when the prose wasn’t so great.

I have only ever known the kick-ass Vanessa with cancer – but perhaps that’s one of the reasons ours was a friendship that packed in so very much in just a few years. We had many writing retreats together; where I’d drive the four-hour trip to the edge of Wales and she’d chat, and we’d put the world to right. We’d brainstorm whatever we were both working on and honestly, more wrinkles were ironed out from our respective works-in-progress during those trips than at any other time.

At breakfast, she’d be up first, dressed in her pink sweatshirt, joggers and slippers or her Christmas jumper in October, and as we all tucked into our various fares, she’d pipe up, ‘Who’s around for afternoon tea? Have you seen the size of those scones?!’ And at three p.m. we’d all gather and do just that, eat titan fruit scones and discuss our word-count and never, not once, during those times would Vanessa mention the word cancer. It was a time for us all to be writers, for her to feel normal in her abnormal situation and I know she loved it. I and the other Prime Writers – we will miss those times – though next week, on the Summer solstice, in honour of Vanessa and her beautiful novel Summertime, we’re getting together to celebrate her and raise a glass to her life, her passion and her legacy.

It’s that passion I will never forget. The Vanessa I knew was inspirational. That’s a word that’s often bandied about but in her case it’s completely apt. She was passionate about right and wrong. She was passionate about their cats! She was passionate about her singing with Mother’s Jam, and leading her choir, who all gave her the most fabulous, loving, send-off that day in March… She was passionate about her writing. She was passionate about her family and friends. She was passionate about James whom she said, ‘made her laugh her ass off every day.’ And she was passionate about love. Her last words to me on the phone the day before she died were ‘Love you.’ And despite the scientist in her, one of her blog posts urged people to try and harness that power of love in her direction to help extend her life. Oddly, I think it worked, on some level, in some small time-frame – it worked. Vanessa adored that Map of Love that she’d created from people’s responses, global hearts of love, from Marlborough to Milan, from Kerry to Kazakhstan. That’s how she inspired.

And not just because of her public sharing of this blog. Her novels, mostly written with her stalker, Cancer, hovering in the background, are a legacy. Summertime, At First Light and lastly Miss Marley (where Vanessa indulged her love of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to create a fictional sister for Jacob Marley), will remain – all acts of love from her. She nurtured words like no other writer I know, so mindful of her readers, only allowing herself to write the next paragraph when the last was as perfect as it could be. Vanessa died before finishing her latest work, ‘Miss Marley’, but I’m thrilled to say that it IS being finished on her behalf, by one of our very own Prime Writers, and it will be released later this year on November 1st. Her editor at HQ, Kate Mills, who will publish the novel, said:

“Vanessa was a remarkably gifted writer, someone who made it look so easy, but worked hard – really hard – to get things just right.  She could bring a character to life in a beat.  She could make you laugh and then weep in the turn of a page.”

Inspirational, yes. Saintly or martyr-like, never. She told it like it was; called a spade a spade. She was unafraid to be afraid, admitting openly that dying scared her because she had so much yet to do. Describing herself as ‘the luckiest unlucky person,’ she was determined to squeeze every last drop of life, saying, ‘I refuse to let this disease ruin my life before it ends it.’ And that, the way she did that, was both awesome and humbling. I will never forget her bravery. And while she felt determined, combative, sad, angry, happy, grateful, she also just wished that it could be different. She wanted to stay with ‘Superman’. She just wanted to live.

And now she’s gone. There’s an empty space where she should be. It’s hard to believe and nothing about it is fair or right. She left us too soon. None of us were ready – prepared maybe, but not ready.

Happy Birthday, Vanessa, our wonderful friend.

You were special. You were vital. And you are missed.

 

 

‘Snow on Snow’ – from Stories Aloud, Oxford 24 Jan. 2017

Below is the short story which I was privileged to hear read by the wonderful actor Gaye Poole before a live audience.  You can hear a recording of Gaye’s reading here. The text follows below. 

 

snow

 

There was a special quality to the silence, just before the snow, as if all of nature held its breath.  Purple clouds, dark and heavy as mourners, draped the ring of hills that encircled the cabin.

Breathing hard, Richard rested the axe against the stump, his city-weak muscles twitching at the unaccustomed effort, feeling pathetically pleased with the jumble of wood at his feet.  Mr Rushmore, the caretaker, had offered to split more logs for him, but his casual condescension made Richard insist on doing it himself.  It was the principle, the reason he had left the comfort of his New York apartment to freeze his bollocks off here in rural Maine.  At least he thought that was Rushmore’s offer; although he had mastered the New York twang in his twenty years since leaving England, the Maine drawl defeated him.  The man could have been offering to cut his hair or wax his car. Continue reading “‘Snow on Snow’ – from Stories Aloud, Oxford 24 Jan. 2017”

LIVING ON THE EDGE

Novelist Vanessa Lafaye gives a frank assessment of how incurable breast cancer has affected her life and her writing.

 

It is a sad fact that everyone knows someone with breast cancer.  Thanks to fundraising and research campaigns, awareness of the disease is high.  For most women, they will have one pretty miserable experience—involving surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, hormone treatment—and then go on with their lives.  This is what is known as ‘primary’ breast cancer, and it’s bad enough.  I had it for the first time in 2009, and came out the other side debilitated but confident the treatment would render me disease-free.

Unfortunately, things didn’t turn out that way.

My career as a novelist has been marked by cancer since the start.  When I was offered a contract for my debut novel, ‘Summertime’, the cancer recurred three months later, and I dealt with all the editorial issues and decisions while going through treatment.  The cancer came back a third time in 2016, and as I was checking the copy-edits for my second book, ‘At First Light’, I learned that my terrible headaches and visual disturbance were caused by a brain tumour. Continue reading “LIVING ON THE EDGE”

HNS Short Story Award Winner: Fire on the Water

I’m thrilled that this story was chosen as the winner for 2016 out of 400 entries by the Historical Novel Society . For readers of ‘Summertime’/’Under a Dark Summer Sky’, it is written in the voice of the character Grace, mother of Henry and Selma. The child in this story is Selma in the novel.

Fire on the Water

 

During the early 1900s, oil millionaire Henry Flagler used his vast wealth to fund his dream of a railway stretching from Miami all the way to Key West, Florida.  The project attracted thousands of workers, from as far away as the slums of New York and the Caribbean islands, drawn by the promise of good pay and living conditions.

This is one of their stories.

 

 

Florida Keys, 1909

 

We came from Haiti so Xavier could work on the overseas railway.  Sophie was just little then, but she was fascinated by the men working on the tracks. She worshipped her Papa.  Xavier was a good man, probably the best man I have known, and I have known a lot…too many to count.  When I look back, it seems that was the only time the sun shone on my life.  Everything before and after is in darkness.  But for a short while, with Sophie growing fast, Xavier in a steady job, and me working as a laundress for the railway workers’ camp, we lived well.  Being married meant we got a decent cabin, just a tent raised up on a wooden frame, but it kept us clear of the sand flies, and at least we did not have to live in the floating dormitory with the single men. Continue reading “HNS Short Story Award Winner: Fire on the Water”

I Lost Part of the World

This piece was written five days after major brain surgery.

It started, as often happens in big disasters, with something small.

dot

A grey dot appeared in my left visual field one day in early June.  I am a novelist, putting in a lot of keyboard hours, and this dot hovered over my left index finger as I typed.  It moved with my eye.  About the size of a pea, it was—annoying, in the way, as I worked to complete the changes for my editor on my second book, ‘At First Light’.  All my energy was devoted to optimizing each word, each phrase, each image.  I had no time or attention to spare this grey dot.

I was also having the worst sinus headaches in my long career of sinus headaches, taking the usual meds, as one does with chronic, familiar pain.

‘It’s a floater’, my friends said, ‘everyone gets them.  Nothing to worry about.’ (A floater is an innocuous, transient defect in the eye, which usually looks like a squiggle or a dot.  Irritating but harmless.)

A week later, after a thorough examination, my optician concurred.  ‘It may last a long time, but clear up eventually. If it changes at all, then go straight to the eye clinic.’  She gave me a leaflet.

The grey dot turned brighter, shimmery over the course of the next month.  I thought it meant that the floater was healing. The headaches abated, but never completely cleared.  A feeling of increased pressure developed inside my skull, an unpleasant addition to the standard sinus face pain.  The final book manuscript was approved, and we started looking at possible cover designs.

shimmer

Continue reading “I Lost Part of the World”

Pheasants, Farmers, and Phalluses: The Prime Writers on Research

Have you ever needed to know how it feels to twist the head off a pheasant? Or skin a squirrel? Have you ever wondered what the slang word for ‘penis’ was in the 1920s? Have you ever been curious about how much rain falls in an average Oklahoma winter?

These and other arcane subjects have all featured in the Prime Writers’ research efforts. Research is not just for writers of historical novels. Unless you’re writing a memoir, some research is necessary—and even for a memoir, some fact-checking will be required. That’s just another name for research. Even if you’re writing about the future, you will want to find out if something is plausible. Continue reading “Pheasants, Farmers, and Phalluses: The Prime Writers on Research”

My Therapy: Swimming with Manatees

It’s way too-early-o’clock on a chilly December morning in Crystal River, Florida.  The weak winter sun has barely peeked above the horizon.  Banks of wispy mist hover over the cypress-brown water around our boat.  Everyone is quiet, subdued.  Sleepy.  We anchor in a shallow area and I slip carefully into the water.  Fins and mask on, I go in search of my favorite, fattest sea-going mammal.

Manatee, Crystal River, Florida

I don’t have to look hard, or at all, in fact. A nose breaks the surface, then disappears. There they are, beneath me, parked up in the river like RVs at an underwater camp site.  They sleep on the white sand of the bottom, and only need to bob to the surface for air every half an hour or so.  This is their refuge, from the cold of the ocean, and from their only known predator:  homo sapiens.  The Crystal River stays a constant 70F all year round, fed by springs which pump tens of thousands of gallons of pure, fresh water into it every day.  Winter is the best time to see them in large numbers, as during the hot months they roam the coast. Continue reading “My Therapy: Swimming with Manatees”

Here, There, and Nowhere

As an American author, living in Britain, writing a novel about Florida, I am accustomed to existing in a semi-chronic state of dislocation. I have a mid-Atlantic accent which sounds to Brits like I’m right off the boat from Appalachia, but to Americans is pure Downton. Although 35 years of living in the UK have also modified my behavior and my spelling, and added a second passport to my collection, people here still often ask me if I’m having a nice visit. Americans try to enlighten me about ‘how we do things in the US.’

I belong, in effect, nowhere. Continue reading “Here, There, and Nowhere”

The Greatest Tragedy You’ve Never Heard of – And Why We Should Remember

Hurricane memorial1

 

Like most Americans, I was ignorant of the history of our involvement in WWI until a set of random events set me on the path to discovering an episode so shocking, so unbelievable, that it seemed at first to be fiction.  But it is not.  The events described below did happen, but have been forgotten by all but the locals of the area.  On so many levels, this is wrong—not least because the events carry some very instructive lessons for us today.

They happened in Florida, where I was born and raised, not in some unpronounceable Belgian town. A group of desperate, destitute WWI veterans, the grimy face of a war that the country wanted to forget, changed the course of US history.  They helped to bring down one President and damaged his successor. And yet, in America today, it’s as if none of it ever happened.  Appalled by my ignorance, I wrote ‘Under a Dark Summer Sky’ to dramatize the events.  On this, the 80th anniversary, it seems like the right time to reflect on them, and what they mean for America today. Continue reading “The Greatest Tragedy You’ve Never Heard of – And Why We Should Remember”