“Frequently Asked Questions”

I stumbled across this gem of a radio programme yesterday. It’s Ian Samson talking about – oh, why don’t I let the BBC explain?

“Ian Samson traces the relationship between authors and their readers through the changing nature of the correspondence between them. He asks his fellow writers whether festivals, promotional tours and the advent of the internet have altered their role.”

You can catch it here if you’re quick. (Sorry, that link didn’t work earlier . It’s now fixed.)

The many highlights of this programme included how Susan Hill successfully remonstrates with students who send her rude emails, the story of how Michael Rosen discovered the way to share poetry with 300 children, and the observation that back in the days of Dickens, authors were very much public figures. The idea of the aloof literary genius is a relatively modern creation.

A spokeswoman from Penguin explained that when they consider which authors to take on, they look not only at what they’ve written but at whether they are prepared to get involved in publicity – giving talks, meeting readers, doing interviews, etc.

Now, I have heard the last point before and know it to be true. However, I’d like to add a small word of encouragement to anyone currently slaving over a first novel who finds this added challenge somewhat daunting.

If someone as clueless as me can get taken on by a publisher, then anything is possible. I must have been the despair of the Penguin marketing department. The word ‘interview’ made my stomach shrivel up in fright. Frankly, if you add the words ‘live’ and ‘radio’ it still does. As for ‘events’ – if I’d had a natural flair for standing up in front of people and talking, I’d have been a teacher.

Faced with these terrifying expectations, I signed up for a Public Speaking course in the hope of learning how to be somebody else. Somebody confident and fluent. Unfortunately by the end of the day I was still a wimp.

I was, however, a wimp who had heard a famous actor confess to a group of strangers,  ‘I’m all right when I have a script, but when I stand up in front of you here as “me”… I’m really nervous.’

It was the most valuable lesson of the day. Everybody is nervous. Four years later and three books in, I still tell myself that at the start of every event. And then I take a deep breath, launch in…  and enjoy it. Hopefully, other people do too.

So to any prospective author who heard the programme and is now wondering whether they might as well give up now – please don’t be put off. As a wise man once said, ‘don’t worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow will take care of itself.’

Just get on with writing a great book.

Rush, rush, rush…

Am currently joining in the general race to get up to date before the holidays, whose precise dates I shan’t be announcing here lest they be noted by some evildoer with a penchant for burgling old computer equipment, scraps of Roman pottery and piles of proof revisions. Oh, and all those photos of bizarre scrapings in mud that meant something at the time.

This year’s expedition, which is being made for family reasons,  involves boldly going out of our comfort zone – beyond the borders of the Roman Empire and to lands whose languages we cannot even read, let alone speak. Looking at the phrasebooks has illuminated further vast and unsuspected wastelands of my own ignorance. If we find anything interesting to fill them with, more will appear here later.

Audio book of Persona Non Grata

Several people have kindly asked if there’s going to be a recording of ‘Persona Non Grata’ and the embarrassing answer is…  I don’t know.

Sorry to be so vague. The person who does know is on holiday at the moment, but as soon as there’s any news it will appear here.

UPDATE, 27 July – The Person Who Knows is now back from holiday. Looks as tho’ things are happening, so with luck there will be something definite sorted out soon.

A Grand Day Out

The sun shone on Whitehall Roman Villa, the crowds turned up and the excellent Fourteenth Legion marched, charged, and fired something that might have been grapefruit at the enemy.

Replica Roman catapult

Some of the recruits who joined up to drill with the regulation wooden practice swords were alarmingly young. By the time they’ve completed their 25 years’ service they won’t be a day over 30.

Still, they’ll be well supplied with food and clothing by the ladies who accompany the legion:


Their spiritual needs will be taken care of…

Replica Household shrine

and should any of them feel poorly, they can always pop down to the camp hospital to visit the Medicus:

Blood-spattered Roman doctor

There’s more on Legio XIIII over at the Roman Military Research Society site including some pics of a full-size legion drilling at Corbridge. As one of the soldiers pointed out, the fact that many of the assembled legionaries didn’t share the same native language didn’t matter, because the orders were in Latin – a nice demonstration of how things must have worked back in the days of the Empire.

Open Day was a chance to meet loads of interesting people, including Doug Kemp, who’s one of the reviews editors for the Historical Novel Society. For geographical reasons the society meets largely on paper and in cyberspace, so it was great to be able to hold a real (if brief) conversation.

(Incidentally, by the end of the day even I became aware that I’d talked too much. I’m not sure at what stage I descended into gibberish, but apologies to anyone who was subjected to it, and to a couple of folk whom I should have recognised and didn’t.)

Meanwhile, back at the archaeology… few things gladden the heart of the digger more than the sight of a fine Roman drain.

Drain leading to remains of Bath House

This was the last chance to see the lovely Bath House One before it’s reburied – sad but necessary, as it’s suffering damage from exposure to the weather.

Finally, when all the hoopla is over, the modern residents will return:

Grazing sheep

…and only now does it become clear that the title for this piece should have been ‘Friends, Romans and Countrymen.’

I know we agreed the proofs, but…

The arrival of a box of shiny and very lovely copies of ‘Persona Non Grata’ reminds me of a statement attributed to Paul Gardner – that a painting is never finished: it just stops in interesting places. You could say the same for a novel.

Part of the editor’s job is to wrest the manuscript out of the hands of the author at the appropriate moment. I’m sure I can’t be the only writer who, given half a chance, would carry on tweaking the text long after the proposed publication date – but not necessarily improving it.

I shan’t be going as far as the apocryphal author who was once seen on a train pencilling amendments into the paperback edition of his own novel, but will confess a grovelling email to the nice folk at Bloomsbury along the lines of, ‘I know we agreed the proofs, but could you possibly just change…’

Email is a silent medium, so the polite and helpful reply failed to convey the sound of people banging their heads on their desks and cursing.

The U.K. proofs  are already corrected and over the next few weeks I’ll try to restrain the urge to offer Penguin a few last-minute improvements. In the meantime I hope American readers will find that Ruso’s third adventure  has stopped in an interesting place.

Incidentally, Margaret Donsbach and I had a chat about Persona Non Grata recently over at Historical Novels.Info – see her blog entry for 2 July. (While you’re over there, anyone who’s ever considerered penning some  historical fiction will enjoy her  ‘writing tips‘ page.)

Too darned hot

Four days of hot weather and any trace of the British spirit of  ‘mustn’t grumble’ has definitely melted away. As the papers have been eager to tell us, it hasn’t been this hot since… well, since the last time.

The heatwave sort of broke today, in that whilst people are still displaying parts of themselves in public that would be better covered up, they’re no longer staggering about clutching bottles of water and telling each other that they can’t stand it much longer.

Digging has been interesting this week. Having been reduced to a limp and muddy rag by Monday night despite drinking gallons of water, I spent some time prowling the internet in search of a cure for heat fatigue. I can now reveal that the answer is…


Well actually the answer seems to be Salt, but it tastes better attached to something crunchy.

I wish I’d known that during the rather warm research for Persona Non Grata, the publication of which we’ll be celebrating here at Downie Towers next week. (Using, if this weather continues, a big bag of Ready Salted and a jug of ice cubes.)

View across sunlit valley with poppies in foreground

A view from the top of the spoil heap. Taking the occasional  turn to trundle a wheelbarrow full of mud up to this point is what brings on the need for crisps.