‘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”

Homeward Bound

In just over a week, I am setting off on the most important visit that I have ever made to my FL, to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the Labor Day hurricane on which my book is based.   While I’m there, I am fortunate to be taking part in some truly splendid events.  I’ve never done this before, so I’m both excited and nervous – excited to return to my home state as a published author, nervous of my debutante book’s first real ‘coming out’ in the US.  Many thousands of people in Europe have already read the book, but it was only published recently in my home country, so this is special.  I’m hoping to capture as many of the moments here, as I go, so watch this space.

My travels start in Tampa, where I grew up and went to school. My first stop is the WFLA Channel 8 TV studio on 2 Sept. to cook live on camera. In this whole crazy year of being a debut novelist, this is truly the most bizarre thing that I’ve been asked to do!  I will be making authentic key lime pie and kick-ass mint julep cocktails (click here for recipes).

That evening, I will be the guest of the fabulous Seafood Shack in Cortez, FL, thanks to my old school mate Liza Adler Kubik, for a literary dinner featuring four of the area’s top chefs.  Each one will cook a course inspired by food in the book, and I will keep the diners entertained with readings in between.  It’s all in aid of the Coastal Conservation Association, which is a cause very close to my heart.

The next day, I am off to New Orleans for a brief visit, to do a reading at the lovely Octavia Books.  It has been ten long years since hurricane Katrina, but for anyone living there it must seem like only five minutes ago.  I’m privileged to play a small part in marking the occasion.

On my return to Tampa, the wonderful Oxford Exchange is hosting a literary lunch on 5th Sept.  I’ll be interviewed by Matt Bolton from the American Meteorological Society about the book, while people enjoy coconut shrimp, ceviche, and other tropical delights.  A signing will follow in the store.

Next it’s time for the real reason for the trip.  I will be heading for the place which has been so much in my mind since I started writing the book in 2010:  Islamorada, in the FL keys, which the Labor Day hurricane destroyed 80 years ago. On 8th Sept., as part of the hurricane anniversary commemorations, I will be interviewed by Keys Discovery Center Curator Brad Bertelli about writing historical fiction.  It’s a huge honor for me to be there for this occasion, and definitely the high point in the whole experience which started five years ago with the question, ‘Why has no one ever written a novel about this?’

I will leave for Miami the next day to sign some books in a few stores and do an interview for the local NPR station before boarding the return flight to London.

I feel tired just writing it all down, but my health has improved a lot in recent months, and I know that it will be energizing as well.  And I SO love meeting existing readers and sharing this story with new ones.  My only regret is that there will be no time for swimming with manatees on this trip.  That would have made it perfect.

Off to pack now…