Thursday, 29 December 2011

A Reluctant Betrothal - The Last Free City

My latest novel, The Last Free City, returns us to the political intrigues and grand machinations of The Dog of the North.  Such schemes invariably play out at the level of individual relationships.  In the excerpt below, the perennially dissatisfied second son Malvazan arrives at the day of his betrothal in a less than constructive frame of mind...

Malvazan, who had been watching from a place of concealment on the upstairs landing, felt a pang run through him.  Poor Sanoutë, he had never seen her so pale or subdued.  Could he really reject her in front of all the houses of the Specchio?  She had wanted to see him, it seemed.  No doubt he could contrive a brief meeting, and Hissen take any bad luck!
He slipped down the stairs, whispered a message to one of the under-servants and made his way to the kitchen garden, a place so lacking in glamour as to be wholly deserted on this most auspicious of days.  There he set himself to wait among the cabbages and tomatoes until Sanoutë should appear.
A caterpillar caught his eye, munching its way determinedly through a thick leaf.  What were the goals of such a creature, he wondered.  It was probably absurd to imagine it having goals at all.  And yet, a transformation awaited it, far beyond anything it could conceive.  It need do nothing to achieve such transcendence: simply keep chewing away at its leaf.  With a snort of sardonic amusement he thought of Dravadan, one day to be elevated to the head of the house—the Dignified Dravadan—with a beautiful and well-bred wife, heirs to follow.  And like the caterpillar, he had done nothing to merit his elevation, and probably lacked the wit fully to understand it.  He pursed his lips, lifted the caterpillar from its leaf: it squirmed, looked around to find meaning for its fate.  Malvazan dropped it on the ground and crushed it under his boot.  Would that Dravadan could be dealt with so easily.
From behind him came a soft voice.  “You wanted to see me?”
Malvazan turned.  Sanoutë’s hair was curled in an elaborate confection, swept back off her face on one side, draping across her eye on the other.
“I was upstairs,” he said.  “I heard you looking for me, and thought to oblige you.”
For a brief second her face twitched into a smile.  “You cannot imagine how long I have yearned for this day.  But you know that.”
He reached out, put a hand on her arm.  “Then why are you not happy?”
Her blue eyes were large and moist.  “Because you have not yearned for it.  You are accepting me because your father told you to.”
“Do you think I listen to him any more?  I am my own man.”
She pushed a hair back out of her eye.  “They say you killed someone,” she said, looking away.
Malvazan shrugged.  “You make it sound so sordid.  It was a duel, a question of honour.  It is regrettable that Flarijo died, but that is the risk of the duel.  Quietus Est, as they say.”
There was a catch in her voice.  “Malvazan, I remember us as children.  Once we went on a picnic to Sang Saraille, do you remember? There were fish in the stream, and it seemed we sat and watched them all afternoon.”
Malvazan nodded.  “I remember,” he said.
“That was four years ago, Malvazan, four years.  It seems as if it was another lifetime.  Now you are talking about killing someone as if it was nothing.”
“It is something that men do,” he said.  “I was a child then; I am a man now.”
She turned and walked slowly towards the wall marking the edge of the garden.  “When we were children, everyone knew that we would be betrothed.  Neither of us seemed to mind.”
“No,” said Malvazan.  “Of course not.”
“But we were different people: children.  Yet we are bound by those conversations.”
Malvazan followed her, put a hand on her shoulder and turned her to face him.  “Are you saying you no longer want us to marry?”
Her eyes welled with tears.  “Don’t you understand anything!” she sobbed.  “It is what I want.  It what I have always wanted!  It is you who have changed, from the dear sweet boy who sat by the stream with me; changed into a man who fights duels, who proposes to Monichoë.  I do not know you, Malvazan: you who were my dearest friend!”
“This is the day set for our betrothal, Malvazan.”  Her voice dropped to a whisper.  “Can you say to me, from your heart, that you would marry me above all other women in the world?”
Malvazan looked into her face.  The clear answer to the question was ‘no’, but the question she should have asked: Will you put aside any reservations you have, and marry me nonetheless, was more difficult to answer.  But an answer was needed, and immediately.  Cursing himself for his weakness and vacillation, he said: “Yes.”
He kissed her on the cheek, turned and walked from the garden with a heavy step, never looking back once at the woman he left behind him.

Friday, 16 December 2011

A paragraph (or two) - Herring in the Library

Dee has provided us with an introduction to one of her less sympathetic characters. I thought, in view of the topicality of all matters financial, I would give you a banker. Sir Robert “Shagger” Muntham is regrettably unavailable for future novels, but he manages to annoy a number of people before being found strangled in his own locked study - thus giving Ethelred and Elsie a chance to investigate a seemingly impossible murder.

Here is Sir Robert making his entrance in all senses of the word:
It must have been almost three months before that when I had run into Rob Muntham coming out of the village post office. I had literally bumped into a tall, slightly stooped, grey-haired figure, who was attempting to enter as I attempted to leave. I was just framing a muttered apology when the man addressed me.
“Ethelred?” he said.
I must have looked blank because he repeated himself.
“Ethelred Tressider, isn’t it? You don’t recognise me, do you? I’m Robert Muntham.”
“Rob Muntham?” I said. I had a horrible feeling that I had sounded as though I was correcting him on the subject of his own name, but at university he had never been called “Robert” – he had been “Rob” or, more usually, “Shagger”. The new, fuller version of his name seemed to come with the gravitas that he had acquired from somewhere during the thirty-odd years since I had last seen him. And, thinking about it, he had also sobered up a bit since that last occasion, standing in the middle of the quad singing a song apparently addressed to a Zulu warrior.
He gave me a tight-lipped smile in response to my mode of address. “These days I am, for my sins, Sir Robert Muntham.”
“Ah, yes,” I said. “Congratulations. I read about it in the College magazine.”
“For services to banking,” he added.
“Ah, yes,” I said again. I wondered if he had really been given a knighthood for his sins. It seemed unlikely, even for a banker. Still, Sir Robert Muntham …
It’s strange how some of your contemporaries show wholly illusory promise, while others emerge unreasonably and gloriously triumphant. Shagger Muntham was unquestionably in the latter category. He captained the College rugby team and had narrowly missed a boxing Blue. His capacity for beer qualified him as some sort of minor alcoholic deity. He knew all of the words to “Eskimo Nell”. These things were held, in the College, to be much to his credit. On the other hand, even his closest friends never claimed to know what subject he was reading. He was the only person I know who was wildly congratulated on achieving a Third Class degree. The party lasted several days and ended with him standing in the quad .... no, I think I’ve mentioned that already.
Then, for while, we heard nothing of him at all. Only later did his apotheosis become apparent. He had descended on the City when the main academic requirements were a pair of red braces and brash confidence. One he had already. The other he had bought, presumably, at a tailor’s in Docklands. As time went by, we sometimes caught a brief mention of him in the national press. The College newsletter increasingly called upon him for short articles on life after university or to encourage us to give generously to some appeal for a new boathouse or scholarships for overseas students – each successive accompanying photograph showed him slightly plumper, slightly greyer, distinctly more pleased with himself. The articles on life after university at least showed no false modesty. If the Queen had been hoping to surprise Shagger, she would have needed to give him a lot more than a knighthood.

‘Tyler juggles characters, story, wit and clever one-liners with perfect balance’ THE TIMES

Sunday, 11 December 2011

An important paragraph - The Lady's Slipper

I thought I would post a paragraph featuring Ella Appleby, the housemaid in The Lady's Slipper. Although she is not the main character she is the cause of much of the strife in the novel, and the person I have received most mail about. Although most of the feedback has been that she is a 'nasty piece of work' (to quote one letter) I take this to be a good omen for she has become the lead character in the next book, The Gilded Lily, and at least she is creating some reaction!

As a character she is brazen and manipulative and not very likeable, so in The Gilded Lily I get the chance to show what incident in her past made her that way, and to give her space for some sort of redemption or atonement. One of the difficulties in writing her was that in The Lady's Slipper she is the engine of the story and so her motivations were of necessity hidden from the reader. One of the reasons I think she works in her role as antagonist is because she appears to have no moral compass. This made her a challenge to write a whole book about, but one I enjoyed tackling. She had to grow both in depth and in humanity if The Gilded Lily was to succeed. In the second book we see much more of her relationship with Sadie, her younger sister. This allowed me to examine how Ella had constructed her family memories to suit herself and that these were at odds with how her life really was. Sadie enables Ella to see herself a lot more clearly and thus begin to change into a different person. The Gilded Lily will be published by Pan Macmillan in September 2012.

The paragraph I have chosen is the one where things have begun to go wrong for Ella, and the one where I suddenly knew I had to write another book to finish her story......

Still clutching the bolster to her chest, as if holding it would somehow hold her together, Ella moved to the window. Outside there was a glow on the horizon. Dawn. She felt nothing. It surprised her. No sorrow for his passing. But she knew there would be a hue and cry as soon as they knew he was dead, and that there would be no place for her when his brother arrived, except as the butt of his boot.
She must get away from here. She started for the door, but then turned back. She would need some things to sell. In a panic she lunged for the silver candlesticks on the dressing table, but in the dark she knocked one over and it clattered to the ground.The noise of it startled her and she realized she was trembling.
‘Get a grip, girl,’ she said to herself. ‘Think. Just think.’ It was as if her thoughts were tangled like brambles; she could not unravel them. She plucked the one thought that made sense. She had to go somewhere far away, where they could never catch up with her. The devil was on her heels, searching for her soul, and he already had hold of her skirts.
‘Oh, Jesus,’ she groaned. ‘Sadie.’ Her heart heaved.
She could not leave her sister behind.

The Lady's Slipper - Available on Kindle and in Paperback

'Top Pick!' RT Book Reviews
'Women's Fiction at its best' History and Women
'Brilliant saga' Romance Reviews today
'Rich and haunting' Reading the Past
'Utterly captivating' Karen Maitland, author of The Owl Killers
'Riveting narrative' For the Love of Books

Saturday, 3 December 2011

My third novel, Jubilee, was published eighteen months ago. It was the first book I set locally and it meant a lot to me to be able to research by simply walking out of the front door. I remember one particularly glorious early June afternoon spent on a bicycle up on the Ridgeway itself. But in Jubilee I was trying to do more than write a homage to the countryside; I wanted to try something a little more unsettling. 
The Ridgeway above the Vale of White Horse
Here is the opening scene of Jubilee.

By the time the kitchen clock struck seven I knew that my cousin wouldn’t be coming back. I abandoned my rehearsal of the cool response I’d planned for her return: I always knew you were just mucking about, Jess . . .

While we waited for the men to finish searching the hedgerows and the white snaky curve of the Ridgeway path above us, I watched my aunt. Evie sat at the kitchen table twisting the fabric belt of her new dress as though she was trying to wring the anxiety out of herself. She caught me staring at her and managed to twist her features into something halfway to a smile. This attempt to reassure me made me feel even more frightened. ‘Come back!’ I shouted silently at my cousin. ‘It’s not a game any more.’

Jubilee is available in paperback and Kindle format.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

My Favourite Moment - Three Things About Me

For the Christmas build-up we MNWers have decided to post some of our favourite moments from our own books on the blog.

This is in the hope of persuading you to consider buying these books as excellent pressies, but also just because it feels good to look back and remember what you liked about your own work; it's easy to get wrapped up in negativity about previously published novels, but the truth is - these novels are good. They're great, in fact. They have something special, something that makes them unique and interesting and, well, publishable.

I'm going to start the ball rolling by returning to my first full-length novel, Three Things About Me. It dealt with seven people, each with a secret, trying to make a new life in the strange seaside town of Allcombe. The novel shared three months of their lives, from each character in turn, as they fell in love, fell to pieces, or fell off the side of the cliff.

Three Things About Me
breaks a lot of rules. It doesn't have one main character, and all the characters are, in some ways, grotesques. And yet I felt it really worked, and drew together, and culminated in some joyous moments of revelation and retribution. It also allowed me a freedom to explore reality and fantasy at the same time - superheroes mingle with business executives, bullied teenagers deal with cultists. Looking back at it now, I'm very proud of it.

So here's the first moment where, in the writing, the book absolutely grabbed me and I knew I had to finish writing it. In chapter five, Alma (once a Hollywood superstar but now an overweight alcoholic trying to learn to be an administrator) is walking along Allcombe pier when she sees a little old lady standing in the top window of an old people's home. The old lady is holding up a sign of one word - HELP.

Alma enters the home and creeps up the stairs. Here's what she finds:

There was no light-shade to cover the naked bulb that hung from the high, artexed ceiling. A single bed with a bed rail had been pushed into the corner behind the door, and next to it stood a small chest of drawers in a plain style with an oval mirror fixed above it, a fine layer of dust sprinkled evenly over it. Cheap perfume and face lotion in dated bottles sat upon it, along with a plastic navy blue brush that was caked with grey hairs in a thick, tangled pelt. A brown armchair with a worn-through seat was pushed up against the window and a crumpled ball of white paper lay on the floor next to it.

The only colour in the room was supplied by a crocheted blanket that lay over the lower half of the single bed. It was huge and ugly, made of a thousand different colours from blood red to privet hedge green, whatever wool the maker could get their hands on she presumed, and it must have taken years to complete.

‘I saw your sign,’ Alma said, just to have something to say. ‘Are you okay?’ She turned back to the door and looked at the old woman who was listening at it. She was tiny, with a slight hump and long blue fingernails that looked greasy, along with her squashed up skin. Her grey straw hair was cut short and was thinning on the crown.

‘They’re killing us,’ the old woman said.

"Three Things About Me is available in Hardback and for the Kindle.