Writing – a spectator sport ?

A friend recently sent me this link to news of MASTERPIECE, a “reality show for writers” soon to be broadcast on Italian television. I read the article with mounting amazement, wondering, who on earth would go in for something like that?  And then I remembered.

It started with a conversation over the wine and peanuts one evening at a friend’s dining-table, when someone said, “Is anybody going in for this BBC thing?”

“This BBC thing” turned out be a competition called END OF STORY. Half a dozen famous writers had each written half a short story and the public were invited to submit their own endings. Someone did note that the small print obliged entrants to take part in a TV programme, but there was no need to worry: it was a national competition so the chances of that happening to any of us were infinitesimally small. Several of us agreed that finishing someone’s story seemed like a fun thing to do, and then we moved on to the business of the evening: the struggle to write something fit to be read aloud in response to whatever writing exercises this month’s leader had brought.

I had completely forgotten about END OF STORY when the phone call came. I was on the long-list for the Fay Weldon group! I had won a mug, a t-shirt and, better still, lots of kudos! The excitement of this news was slightly tempered by the memory of the small print, but I pushed it to the back of my mind. TV appearances were like accidents. They only ever happened to other people.

Until the next phone call.

Day later I was in Glasgow, one of a row of shell-shocked wannabe writers seated on chairs under studio lights.  Cameras were poised to catch close-ups of our reactions as the panel of judges delivered their verdicts on a screen in front of us. Professional writers, we were told, must expect to have their work critiqued. They were treating us like professionals. It was too late to point out that I didn’t really want to be a writer after all: that despite the encouragement of a very patient agent, my attempt at a novel set in Roman Britain was headed for the bonfire. That I’d decided it was time to stop wasting time with words and find something useful to do with my life.

I’m told I looked very calm, but that may have been something to do with the painkillers. It certainly wasn’t the Buck’s Fizz on offer in the dressing-room. I’m still not sure whether that was a sign of the BBC’s generosity or its need to get us to relax in front of the cameras. Either way, I’d turned it down.  I had enough trouble walking in a straight line as it was: earlier that week I’d managed to fall off my own shoes and crack a bone in my foot, and had to lurch into the studio on crutches. Maybe that’s why I didn’t run away.

After it was over they took each of us into a side room and asked, “How do you feel?” Since then I have watched hundreds of people being asked this question in front of cameras and to my amazement they all seem to know the answer. Whatever I managed to stammer evidently wasn’t interesting enough to broadcast. What I should have said was, Stunned. We contestants had begun to feel that we were all in this together, but now three of us had been eliminated. I wasn’t one of them.

 Setting up for filming at the foot of stairs.

Somebody’s bum looks big in this, but for once it’s not mine. Made it down the stairs on one crutch!

 Two of the objections to the idea of a ‘live’ writing contest are that writing is neither easy to do with an audience, nor very interesting to watch. Mercifully the BBC had thought of that, so the putting together of words was firmly in the past by the time we got anywhere near the cameras. However, being a professional writer involves all sorts of things that are nothing to do with writing. In the interests of entertainment and education, the producers came up with new challenges for us.

By some twist of fate the one who hated having photographs taken was sent for a professional photo shoot.  The one who was in the slough of despond because not only was her novel headed for the bonfire but she’d just failed an interview for her own job was to be given… an interview! I don’t think they filmed the moment when the production crew thought I’d done a bunk down the back stairs on my crutches, but it would have made good telly.

Finally we got to meet Fay Weldon, whose story we’d all attempted to complete, and who was both kind and generous with her critiques.  And then it was all over. I was alone on the way to Euston with a fresh challenge: how to manage an overnight bag, a bunch of flowers, a bottle of champagne and a crutch.


It’s all over. Still hoping they don’t film my feet. Only wearing those sandals because nothing else will fit round the bandage. (Yes, that is Big Ben outside. The finals were filmed in London.)

 Six END OF STORY programmes went out on BBC3 back in 2004. As I understand it, the twin aims were to encourage writers and to entertain viewers.

Did they succeed?

They certainly encouraged me. Shortly after it was all over they rang to say they were thinking of making a follow-up programme about the finalists. Could they send a camera crew round to ask about the writing?

Now the writing, as you’ll be aware if you’ve been paying attention, was on the road to destruction. (Destroying stalled novels was so much more fun in the days when we had paper. I had enough failed drafts in the bottom drawer to make a merry blaze.) But of course I still couldn’t say that to the lovely people at the BBC. They had pushed me through the streets of Glasgow in a wheelchair when the crutches got too much, and been enormously kind about my terror of interviews. So when two chaps turned up with a camera I burbled vaguely about working on a Roman novel. “Great!” they said. “We’ll be back in January to see how it’s going!”

I did my best to keep smiling.

Did they entertain the viewers? Maybe not as much as they’d hoped. It wasn’t until January had slipped into February, February into March that I began to look up from the frantic efforts to produce something – anything – to talk about next time, and to wonder if they were coming back at all. By the time I realised there would be no follow-up programme, the first draft of the Roman novel was almost complete.

That book later became the first in the Ruso series. The sixth should be published next year. The one contestant with whom I’ve kept in touch is also still writing.

My best wishes go to all the brave contenders on MASTERPIECE. I have much to be grateful for, and I hope it works for them as well as the BBC’s rather more restrained approach worked for me.

As for that foot injury – not even the humiliation of falling off my own shoes was wasted. Ruso suffers a broken metatarsal in rather more heroic circumstances at the start of the third novel. Believe me, those scenes on crutches were written with feeling.

For more thoughts on MASTERPIECE, here’s a debate in the Guardian. Anyone else care to comment?

A sad loss

We woke this morning to the news that James Gandolfini had died. It felt like losing an old friend of the family.

We came late to The Sopranos in our house. We missed the start of the first episode and it was a while before we realised that behind the violence and the overweight men swearing at each other, there lay a sharp script complemented by marvellous acting.

As the stories unfolded, I couldn’t help wondering whether the Mafia is a spiritual descendent of ancient Roman ancestors. Roman society was deeply hierarchical: everyone was dependent upon someone higher up – apart from the Emperor, who was at the mercy of the gods and sharp knives. In the absence of a police force or a public prosecution service, you hoped that in return for your loyalty, your superior would also be your protector.

The brilliance of the Sopranos script was that we saw behind the façade of the Great Man. We saw a character who could terrorise his business associates but couldn’t control his children, and was paralysed by the impossibility of ever pleasing his ghastly mother. We sat in on Tony’s secret visits to his therapist, who of course could never do much to resolve his problems because he could never tell her the truth. Yet when the therapist was the victim of crime it was Tony, her powerful ally, who administered justice.

It was wonderful writing and Gandolfini, a man with the body of a bear and the innocent grin of a child, was ideally cast.

Rest in peace, James Gandolfini.  We remember your work with great pleasure, and – as Tony Soprano would have wanted – with respect.

Bettany Hughes invades Britain in the U.S., Semper Fidelis will be on audio, and…

Sorry about the title of this post but I couldn’t think of a cunning way to join up several completely disparate pieces of news. (It’s been a long day.)

Firstly – Thanks to Linda for getting in touch “to alert folks to the fact that Bettany Hughes’ television series “the roman invasion of britain” is currently showing in the U.S. I believe it was produced a few years ago… it’s a nice–if brief–overview of romanized britain, and…  she is an engaging narrator.”  Catch it while you can!

Secondly – several people have asked whether there will be an audio version of SEMPER FIDELIS and hooray, yes, I’ve just heard that there will be!
No news yet about when it will be released or who will be reading it, but it’s being produced by the company who did the previous US versions (Tantor)  so I’m sure it will be of the same high quality.

Meanwhile, a quick reminder to friends in the UK and Ireland that it’s not too late to enter the draw to win a free copy of SEMPER FIDELIS (see the 2nd post below), and for anyone who’s planning to celebrate the holidays in true Roman style, this great post over on Caroline Lawrence’s blog will give you plenty of ideas.

I think that’s everything. I’ll leave you with the traditional greeting of the season.  Io Saturnalia!



Rome’s enormous rubbish dump

I’d heard of Monte Testaccio. I’d seen photos of it. But I’d never appreciated how truly enormous and wonderful it is until Mary Beard took us to Meet the Romans on Tuesday evening and clambered down a ladder into the middle of it.

This is what it’s made of:

Olive Oil amphora in Winchester City Museum

Yes, really. This one is in  Winchester City Museum, and I propped a leaflet against it to give some idea of how big it is.  (You can just see it peeping round the corner on this panorama, too.) Apparently these things weighed thirty kilos when empty, so moving them around when they were filled with olive oil must have been quite some feat. Here’s a sketch of how it was done. (I think it’s from the museum at Nimes. Or maybe it was Arles.)

Two men carrying an amphora slung under a pole

The burly lads on the docks might have been able to handle that kind of weight, but nobody was going to carry one of those things home from the shops. Once off the boat, the oil would have been decanted into smaller containers. The empty amphorae were  apparently too rancid to recycle and it certainly wasn’t worth the effort of shipping them back to Spain, so they were broken up and dumped. Over the years, the pile grew, as rubbish piles do. Eventually it was fifty metres high.

What really interested me about all this was that Spanish oil amphorae often turn up on British sites too – and not just in places where you might have expected to find soldiers or Imperial officials. For the supergeeky, there’s a distribution map here, and it includes a dot in Northamptonshire.

One of the points made in the programme was that ‘Roman’ was not necessarily a description of your birthplace. With good luck and a lot of determined effort, it was something you could become. Standing in a sunny Northamptonshire field, as I frequently do on a summer’s day, it’s easy to imagine the ancient residents gazing past their smart new bath-house and across the valley to where their neighbours’ villas adorned the distant hillsides. And it’s easy to imagine them feeling a fleeting sense of satisfaction.

“We are Roman. We do as the Romans do. We have made it.”

(How many rubbish dumps have their own website? Here’s more than you ever wanted to know about Monte Testaccio.) 

Meet the Romans – with Mary Beard

‘Meet the Romans’ seemed a more dignified title than ‘Rome from the bottom up,’ but that’s what Mary Beard is promising in her new BBC2 series, which I’m really looking forward to watching. It starts next Tuesday (17 April) at 9 pm, and here she is talking about it to Classics Confidential at the kitchen table.


The Classics Confidential post has more links, including one to a pic of the tombstone Mary mentions. (They also have a delightful interview about The Flashing Midwife,  which I confess is what tempted me there in the first place).

Meet Sarah Bower

Portrait of Sarah Bower

Today we’re taking a brief excursion forward in time from the Romans, and I’m delighted to welcome a guest who not only writes marvellous novels, but is also in demand as a tutor to other writers.
Sarah Bower’s first novel, THE NEEDLE IN THE BLOOD, was Susan Hill’s Book of the Year in 2007. Her second, SINS OF THE HOUSE OF BORGIA, has just been published in the USA, so this seemed like the ideal time to invite her over for a chat.
I was curious not only about the Borgias, but about how Sarah finds the whole experience of writing.


Ruth, thanks so much for inviting me to share my thoughts on the Borgias and other mysteries of the novelist’s world with you and your readers. It’s some years now since our first encounter and a lot of bodies have flowed under a lot of bridges since then.

You did a creative writing MA, which I’m guessing involves opening your work up for feedback. Are you naturally someone who likes to discuss what they’re working on, trying out passages on friends and bouncing ideas off people, or do you find putting together a novel is a very private affair?

I found the MA an amazing experience. I had wonderful tutors, including the then Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, and Michele Roberts, and masterclasses with Melvyn Bragg and Nell Dunn, among others. I also met some very talented writers and made my best writing buddy, with whom I go away most years to write a lot and drink not a little! That said, it was also very tough and, when my turn came round to be workshopped, I was usually terrified! Although I was part of several lively and creative writing groups when I started out, and am still nominally part of a group called Writers Without Walls which arose out of my time at UEA, I find I’m less inclined now to share work in progress than I used to be. I think this is because, the more you go on, the more self-critical you become so you dread anyone seeing anything unfinished except your agent or editor with whom you share the sanctity of the ‘confessional’. The one exception I would make is that I love discussing plot mechanics with people, my own and theirs. I find I can usually see how other writers can resolve difficulties with plot and vice versa. As a writer, you sometimes can’t see the wood for the trees in that respect and a fresh perspective is welcome.

Cover shot of Sins of the House of Borgia

How do you feel when your novel goes public?

By that stage, I feel the book has ceased to be mine. Once cover designers, blurb writers and marketing people get in on the act, they transform your baby into a commodity for sale and, for me, that’s the best way to think about it, with a good dose of self-preserving detachment. I am, of course, also very proud. Only this morning, a friend who’s currently on holiday in New York posted on my Facebook wall to say she’d seen SINS OF THE HOUSE OF BORGIA on display in Barnes and Noble and I got very excited about that as I haven’t been published in the States before.

Do you read reviews?  If so, do you ever feel tempted to respond to them?

This is quite a topical question as I write, as there has been a lot of chatter on social networking sites surrounding an author I shan’t name who has seen fit to come back at a critical review with all guns blazing. This hasn’t made her popular but may, I suppose, sell more books. It wouldn’t be my way. I do read reviews, particularly those done by reviewers whose opinions I respect because I feel their criticism will help me to improve my craft. I do try to respond to good reviews that appear in blogs because blogs are more like a conversation than a magazine review, whether online or print, and I like to thank people for the kind things they say and the effort they’re making on my behalf.

What do you hope readers will especially enjoy about SINS OF THE HOUSE OF BORGIA?

I hope different readers will find different things in it. It’s a love story, but not a conventional one – as you can imagine, given how the Borgias led you into mixing up your Christmas and Halloween lanterns! It’s also very much a book about motherhood, which determines the lives of its central characters in quite forceful ways. I have included a certain amount of lurid Borgia mythology, especially the famous Chestnut Orgy, which really set a new standard for parties, I feel. Most of the novel, however, is set after Lucrezia Borgia’s third marriage, to Alfonso d’Este, when she put the scandals of her early life in Rome behind her. When thinking about how I wanted to approach the Borgias, I felt very strongly that a lot of other writers had covered that ground and done it so well I didn’t want to try to compete but find a different way into the story.

Readers who know you in the UK will have met the book under its British title, THE BOOK OF LOVE. What’s the thinking behind the change of title and cover for US readers, and is it exactly the same text inside, or did the American publisher suggest changes?

Cover of The Book of Love

As Ian McEwan is reputed to have said when asked how he liked the movie version of Enduring Love, ‘I took the cheque. That’s all I have to say.’ Being a short story writer also, I know the value of titles when they contribute something to the understanding of a text of which they form a significant proportion. A novel title, however, is to my mind more of a marketing tool. It helps to categorise the work and give readers some idea what they’re getting. The title had already been changed by my German publisher to DAS SIEGEL DER BORGIA. So, while I wouldn’t have chosen the title myself, I’m prepared to admit that Sourcebooks’ very sharp and energetic publicity people know their market better than I do. There was also, I gather, some confusion with a novel already in circulation in the States called The Book of Love. I did wonder if readers might be disappointed when they looked between the luscious and lascivious covers and failed to find an orgy on every page, but so far I’ve been delighted by the response.

The text is almost exactly the same. The only editing I was asked to do was around certain grammatical usages and again, that was more to do with American convention than the sense of my original constructions. And the spelling has been changed, of course. I wasn’t asked to undertake any substantial edits, which was a relief.

The US publication coincides with the television series THE BORGIAS. Was that good luck, or good timing on the part of the publisher?  Any views you’d like to share on screen representations of the Borgias?

The coincidence with the new Fantasy TV series is mostly luck. I’ve had nothing to do with the making of that and it isn’t based on my novel. However, Sourcebooks had bought both my novels and quickly switched their publishing schedule when they heard about the TV show. They had planned to publish THE NEEDLE IN THE BLOOD this year and SINS OF THE HOUSE OF BORGIA in 2012 but now it’s going to be the other way round.

I’m looking forward hugely to seeing the TV show when it comes to the UK in July, though I’m also slightly apprehensive because I, too, remember the serial the BBC did in the 80s which has, justifiably, become a benchmark for everything you don’t do in period drama. It was impossible to take seriously and I feel the Borgias themselves, who all had great senses of humour, would have been rolling around in their graves clutching their sides with mirth. The trailers I’ve seen for the new one look much, much better. Apart from the gorgeous sets and costumes, and Jeremy Irons reprising his sinister inquisitor from the late, great Heath Ledger’s Casanova, the makers seem to have really captured the soap opera aspects of the Borgias’ lives. I remember when Gianni Versace died, watching Donatella in her very public grief and thinking, these two are just like a latterday Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia. When you read about Borgia parties, it’s not difficult to bring to mind, for example, the Beckham wedding – or an afternoon by the pool with Charlie Sheen. This is a huge part of the Borgias’ attraction for modern audiences and I’m looking forward to seeing it played to the hilt.

What’s one thing you’ve learned that you’d like to pass on to aspiring novelists?

Persevere, and never get complacent. If you ever think anything you write is good enough, then it won’t be. Writing a novel is very hard work and, as Michele Roberts famously said, only to be undertaken if everything else fails.

What’s the question you wish somebody would ask but nobody ever does?

Are the film rights available?

What’s the answer?


That seems a good place to finish! Thank you, Sarah.
SINS OF THE HOUSE OF BORGIA is available from all good bookshops in the USA and as THE BOOK OF LOVE in the UK.
Sarah is one of the authors featured on the British Babes Book Brigade page on Facebook.

Coming soon – meet Sarah Bower

A bit of a change from the Roman Empire coming up, although still very much in the same area – we’ll be taking a brief trip forward in time to visit the Borgias.

My first brush with them came in the 1980’s, courtesy of the BBC.  I was making Christmas decorations at the time and I wouldn’t say the programmes had a malign influence, but never before nor since have our Yuletide decorations consisted of black paper lanterns with red inserts for the ‘light’…

American viewers will have a chance to reassess the Borgias in a day or two, when the very English Jeremy Irons will be portraying the Pope in a new series. Meanwhile my latest encounter with the combination of power, religion, scheming and sex came from Sarah Bower’s excellent second novel ‘Sins of the House of Borgia’ (published here with a spookier cover as ‘The Book of Love’).

Sarah and I began corresponding  when we were both hopeful scribblers with a manuscript but no publisher. This seemed like a good time to catch up, so drop by in a few days to see how she’s survived the famous family. I promise there will be no black paper lanterns.

Auf Wiedersehen, Puella

I came late to  Rome wasn’t built in a day, but Channel 4’s  attempt to build a Roman villa using only authentic Roman methods seems to offer all the entertainment value of Grand Designs, Auf Wiedersehen Pet and Time Team rolled into one.

Last night’s episode was in some ways less about the villa than about the total collapse and reconstruction of the team’s morale.  I had missed the moment where the archaeologist banned the use of wheelbarrows (‘no evidence for Roman use’), but Channel 4 replayed it so we could see how the builders manfully refrained from punching the archaeologist on the nose.

This week the team of six were still lugging everything around the site in buckets as the summer days grew hotter. The plasterer went down with sunstroke. The carpenter and the plumber argued as they failed to build the sort of Roman-style cart that would have solved their transport problem.  The archaeologist told them to work faster. Cries of  ‘Give them some more slaves!’ and ‘What about a donkey?’ were heard from the Downie sofa.  Futile, of course.

Just as the team seemed to be reaching breaking-point, the archaeologist had a bright idea that could be summed up in a phrase familiar to every writer:   show, don’t tell.  So off they all went to Ephesus.

Amongst the sunlit ruins, a transformation took place. We saw the quality of Roman construction through the eyes of modern builders, who could appreciate both the skills and the time that must have been required.  The archaeologist no longer looked like an harassed slave-driver, but a man delighted to share his vision. There was a magical moment when their host poured water over a mosaic and it sprang to life in all its original colours. There were several less than magical moments on the massage couches as the team ‘enjoyed’ the full  bath-house experience.

Back in Wroxeter, fortune smiled upon the newly-enthused and massaged builders. The authentic Roman cart was finally made to work, then banned on Health and Safety grounds, so wheelbarrows were permitted after all. Several slaves turned up in the shape of (mostly female) volunteers. And wonder of wonders, there was a donkey.

Next week, we’ll see them lifting massive timber frames into place without the use of modern equipment. What could possibly go wrong?