The Book Circle

During the Australian leg of the Secret Keeper tour I had the pleasure of filming a segment for the Mamamia Book Circle (hosted by Cheryl Akle) along with fellow-writers Zoë Foster (The Younger Man) and Peter FitzSimons (Eureka). 

Here we are after deciding it would be a lot more fun to promote someone else's book for a while: 


And here, if you're in the mood for some futher bookish merriment, is the segment itself:





Bits and pieces from the Secret Keeper tour, Part I

Things I did in the UK, in no particular order . . . 
Went to the National Portrait Gallery and saw, among other treasures, Branwell Brontë's painting of his three sisters, complete with the crease marks from where the second wife of Charlotte Brontë's husband (are you still with me?) found it, folded and stored, at the back of an old wardrobe. (Oh, but how that detail belongs in a story! I especially love Branwell's own ghostly form looming behind the others.)
Talked to the lovely Dan Lewis of the Waterstones blog. Our chat took place in a little cheese shop in Kensington that was really very charming (we were sitting on bales of hay), and included topics like writing, life's big questions, and the ghosts that live inside my dad's old pub. 
Drank tea and ate scones in the glorious V&A tearoom, all the while hatching plans to take up secret residence in the nineteenth-century wing . . .
All I ask is for a ceiling like this one . . . what? Too much?
Made the requisite pilgrimage to Persephone Books on Lamb's Conduit Street in Bloomsbury. As you can see, it was as perfect as ever. 
Signed an awfully big pile of Secret Keepers on a visit to my publishers at Pan Macmillan. (Don't they look just lov-er-ly en masse?!)
Travelled to Oswestry, Shropshire, to attend an afternoon tea event with the brilliant and beautiful bôôka bookshop. (Apologies again to those who were trying to eat cake while I read aloud the rather dramatic and shocking first chapter ending of Secret Keeper!)
Here's the bôôka manifesto:
And here's the lovely shop itself:
Went to Windsor to visit the Queen to speak at a Christmas showcase for independent booksellers (and you know how much I love independent booksellers) along with the delightful Judith Kerr, author of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and The Tiger Who Came to Tea.
Oh, and just for good measure I went to visit Hogwarts

On bookstores and booksellers

Daunt Books, Marylebone High Street. I've spent my whole life dreaming about being locked inside a place like this. Haven't you?I've just returned home after five weeks touring The Secret Keeper in the UK, Germany, the US, Canada and Australia, and have consequently had the pleasure of visiting a number of fabulous bookstores and meeting the (always incredibly hard-working and passionate) human captains steering them through the sometimes choppy waters of the digital age. 

Many writers have stories about the person in their formative years who handed them the right book at the right time and it just so happens that mine was a bookseller. His name was Herbert Davies and I've written about him before in this journal. Here's a little piece I wrote some time ago about his influence on my reading habits and, thereby, my life.


I’ve always been a reader. I read, voraciously, long before I ever entertained ideas about becoming a writer, and I wasn’t fussy. Black print on a white page was pretty much the only specification I had—sure, a magic faraway tree or a set of chipper English school children solving mysteries and devouring tins of condensed milk improved matters, but I’d make do without. I needed to read. I didn’t know what else to do with myself. I still don’t. A book before school, a book afterwards, in the bath, in the car, in the boughs of avocado trees, in front of the television. I’d read the back of the telephone bill if it was all I had in front of me.

This is Herbert before I met him (you might recognise him as the inspiration for the description of Mr Snelgrove, the Cecil Court bookseller whom Nell encounters in chapter 13 of The Forgotten Garden?)Then, when I was ten, something changed. I met my first proper bookseller. His name was Herbert Davies and his bookstore was not a particularly magical setting. In fact, it was very basic—plain grey concrete block walls and a few old library shelves at the front of a shop in a newly-built centre on Tamborine Mountain, the small rainforesty village where I grew up. Herbert’s wife, Rita, ran a little drama studio from behind a set of screens at the rear of the shop, which is how I came to meet him. I was early for class one day and I got caught, the way you do, in the aisles of his shop. I was flicking through pages and had thought myself quite alone when all of a sudden, a rich, melodious voice sounded, as if from nowhere. ‘May I help you?’

In the far corner, slumped behind a counter, was the owner of the voice. Herbert looked like he’d come straight from the pen of Quentin Blake. A scribble of a man. Frail and fine and stooped from a knot at the centre of his back. Beige slacks with grease spots clung to the marbles of his knees and tufts of white fluff sprouted from various fertile spots on an otherwise smooth scalp. There was a magical sort of haze about him. It turned out to be tobacco smoke. He looked like a character from a children’s story, I thought at the time. A fairy tale. A scary one.

He was over seventy when we met, a proud Welshman who’d started his working life as a fourteen-year-old in a munitions factory but turned to writing poems and plays during service in Burma during the second world war. He belonged to that group of Welsh writers and actors including Dylan Thomas, Richard Burton and Rachel Roberts, and had become head of Radio Drama for the Welsh BBC before moving to Australia with Rita, a repertory actress.

Despite the fact that he scared the living daylights out of me on our first meeting, we became great friends over the following two decades. ‘May I help you?’ he had asked, and help me he did. Meeting Herbert Davies changed my life. He had all the books they didn’t give you in school and a sixth sense for knowing just which one to recommend; he introduced me to Shakespeare and Milton, Walt Whitman and The White Hotel. He gave me Under Milk Wood and found a cassette recording of Richard Burton reading it. He urged me to read and travel and later, to write. He understood that life and people and books and theatre and stories are all inextricably linked and that reading is one of the best ways to find new questions to ask.

His house contained as many books as his shop, but he had the entire collection catalogued in his brain. Conversation only had to shift in a particular direction for him to remember a book he had on the subject.  To see him home in on a target was a thing of great beauty: his impressive brows would furrow, then a single finger, pale and smooth as a candlestick, would rise as he hobbled wordlessly to a distant wall of books. The finger would hover for a moment, as if magnetised, above the spines, leading him, finally, to slide the perfect book from place. And that, I’ve always thought, is the bookseller’s gift.

A bookseller is a person who sells books. And yet booksellers do much, much more than that. A bookseller is a listener, an empathiser, a supplier, a matchmaker. They are one of Malcolm Gladwell’s connectors: people with a whole shop of shelves loaded with good friends, just waiting to go home with I know for a fact the Faraway Tree is much taller than this, but you get the picture . . .somebody. Each reader is different—their needs, their desires, their past reading-relationships—and a bookseller has to be able to assess all these things within moments, to read minute shifts in the countenance of their customer, before coming up with the perfect recommendation. 

I know I’m not alone in the way I feel about bookstores: the sense that just by stepping through the doorway I’ve gone down the rabbit hole, beyond the back of the cupboard, to the top of the faraway tree. There are countless others who value the experience of disappearing amongst beautiful books in bricks and mortar shops run by expert booksellers: the sort who read and think, who love and promote books, who know that what they’re selling is so much more than a bound set of pages. These are the people who put books in the hands of children and parents and those for whom the choice of what to read may seem daunting. Frontline soldiers in the battle for literacy. And having seen the faces of my son’s classmates light up when I read them The Enchanted Wood last year, I know that’s a battle well worth fighting.



And here, because I can't help myself, for your listening pleasure a small sample of Under Milk Wood (obtained very easily in the age of youtube . . . nowhere near as romantic as the rummaging through dusty boxes that Herbert had to undertake in order to find the cassette he played for me).



The Secret Keeper is coming!

Australian cover, Allen & UnwinI've been longing to write about the new book for ages, and now, having sent the manuscript off to the typesetter this week, I finally can. I've written before about how it feels to finish a novel (here, for instance), but looking back at that earlier post, I have to tell you this one felt very different.

Oh, the final days of writing passed, once again, in a blur of words and ideas and pictures in my head and fingers that wouldn't type fast enough and -- I admit it -- tears when some of my most-loved characters reached the ends of their journeys; but writing Secret Keeper was such a joyous experience. 

Of course there were periods during its composition when I felt utterly confuddled and couldn't make the puzzle pieces fit together, but I'm learningUK cover, Mantle that's just part and parcel of this wonderful, frustrating, exhilarating book-writing thing.

There were times, too, of enormous thrill. When things just worked, or threads I hadn't expected to belong together surprised me, or really difficult sections finally came right. Most of all though, this book reminded me what I love about writing. Not just writing, but storytelling. It reminded me that I write because there is nothing on earth I love more than disappearing inside the world of a made-up story.

And The Secret Keeper is a story. Those have always been my favourite types of books. It's a mystery with a big old secret at its heart and characters whom I love. It will be published in the UK and US in October 2012, Australia and New Zealand in November 2012, and I'm excited to say I'll be touring in each country through October and November (with a whistlestop visit to Frankfurt, too). Tour dates and locations to come as soon as I have them, along with publication details for everywhere else.

US cover, AtriaAnd now, to the story . . . 


The Secret Keeper 

1961: On a sweltering summer's day, while her family picnics by the stream on their Suffolk farm, sixteen-year-old Laurel hides out in her childhood tree house dreaming of a boy called Billy, a move to London, and the bright future she can't wait to seize. But before the idyllic afternoon is over, Laurel will have witnessed a shocking crime that changes everything.

2011: Now a much-loved actress, Laurel finds herself overwhelmed by shades of the past. Haunted by memories, and the mystery of what she saw that day, she returns to her family home and begins to piece together a secret history. A tale of three strangers from vastly different worlds--Dorothy, Vivien and Jimmy--who are brought together by chance in wartime London and whose lives become fiercely and fatally entwined...


(I held this post back briefly while I waited until I had all three covers to share with you. Aren't they beautiful? So different, and yet each one captures a different aspect of the story. Do you have a favourite?) 


Las Horas Distantes

Hola, Spanish readers! Las Horas Distantes was released in Spain and parts of South America in March (and went straight to #1. Thank you all for trusting me to tell you a good story.) I can't wait to get back to Spain; I had such a brilliant time in Madrid on my last tour. It was my last stop on a long programme and I was pretty tired when I arrived. The glorious people I met, the wonderful food I ate, the incredible beauty of the place completely revived me.
The Suma cover is one of my favourites of any of my books anywhere in the world. There's something so beautiful and vulnerable and mysterious about her, isn't there? 
Las Horas Distantes... Isn't she lovely?
PS Readers of Spanish can talk about my books (or whatever else takes your fancy, I expect) here.