Ancient and Modern

Just got back from holiday. I did something amazing this year – voluntarily went to sea on an actual ship! I’m not a good sailor, but the Aegean was relatively calm, and the ship lovely and comfortable. We flew to Istanbul, cruised through the Aegean, visiting Lemnos, Izmir, Skiathos, Delos, Mykonos, Santorini, Crete and Nauplia, and ended the tour at Athens. It was a wonderful, and rather luxurious, way to cram in a lot of history in the space of two short weeks.

One reason for this particular visit was that I really wanted to see Ephesus, because there are some scenes set there in this novel I am writing.  It is a wonderful site. Most of the ruins there are Roman, dating to the first century AD, and some of the places we visited would have been known to St Paul, St Luke and their colleagues in the early church. For example, here’s the road that leads down to the harbour that the apostles would have sailed from. What harbour? OK, it has long since silted up.


The tour company, Voyages to Antiquity, always have visiting lecturers on the ship. Dr James Morwood and Dr Thomas Mannack, both from the University of Oxford, were on board, and taught us a lot about the Classical Greek and ancient world we were visiting.

And we discussed this lady; Artemis of Ephesus, who vexed St Paul considerably, and who appears in my story:


There has been much discussion about the rows of bead-like objects she has slung around her torso. Are they breasts? bull testes? eggs? Dr Mannack is convinced they are dates. Which makes sense, as Artemis was a goddess of fertility and fruitfulness.

Also on the tour I was looking out for details about modern Turkey. It was important to try Turkish tea, for example, and to see the landscape and describe how people are dressed.

While lounging on deck, I learned a lot about the more recent history of the region by reading Louis de Berniere’s novel Birds Without Wings, which is set in the declining Ottoman empire of the early 20th century, and explains much of the animosity between the Turks and the Greeks – a distinction which the Ottoman people would not have made. For example, I learned that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the “father of the Turkish nation” was born in what is now Thessaloniki, which belongs to Greece. Was he even Turkish at all? Well, that depends…

Our last day on the Turkish part of the trip was spent in Pergamon; the home of: a famous library, the first books on parchment, and the second century AD physician, Galen. He makes a cameo appearance in my story. Here’s the Asklepion, or hospital, of Pergamon, which we understood was something like a modern spa resort, with baths, massages, medical treatments and some psychological therapies too.


I learned so much. What a fantastic way to research a novel!

Eighty Thousand Words

Paris etc 059A few months ago, I wrote in these pages that I had embarked upon a novel. Well, last night, it reached 80,000 words – the minimum length of a novel as we understand it (the maximum seems to be 120,000 words, so I have some scope for expansion). I’ve got to the end of the plot, and I’m now embroidering the sub-plots, adding some ‘local colour’ around some of the locations – that sort of thing. The last piece to be put in place will be derived from a trip to Turkey, which we are planning to take in September. Then it will go to my lovely agent, Anna Power, for her comments and edits.  I really really hope somebody will like it enough to publish it. You never know.

And the characters in the picture above, who reside in the Museum of the Middle Ages, in Paris? Who are they? They feature in my story.

Meanwhile, I have to think of a subject for a second novel. Or, alternatively, I have to apply for some proper jobs.


Totleigh in the Springtime

What a perfect week at Totleigh Barton – the Arvon Foundation’s gorgeous, pre-Domesday-Book retreat in Devon. It is settled in this wonderful valley full of orchards and cow fields and it feels old, really old. When I think about the different types of English those walls have heard spoken, I’m overawed by how ancient and historic the house is, and what a privilege it was to spend time there with other writers in such gorgeous spring weather.

It’s the first time I’ve been on an Arvon course about prose – previously I’ve been exclusively interested in poetry. I felt that I’d gone back to Square One, with no real idea whether I can even write prose; but the encouragement of the marvellous Maggie Gee and Nii Parkes was a tremendous boost – and my fellow students also seemed to like the excerpts I read for them.  A novel about the pharmaceutical industry? Crazy – but it just might work!

The very first things they asked me, floored me.  What’s the theme of the book? What’s the climax of the plot? Well, the theme may be twofold: 1) Science and scientists are interesting, and creative, and 2) how knowledge is lost if we don’t take care if it, but may be found again. And the climax of the plot, well, you will have to wait and see, but at least I’ve got one, now…

It was a great treat to have Hisham Matar visit us and read from his new work. He’s writing a dramatic monologue, for performance, which hovers between prose and poetry, and hearing it read by the author was a stunning experience.

It’s always simplistic to say that someone is “the new whoever” but this week I heard echoes of Barbara Pym, David Lodge, Helen Fielding, Orhan Pamuk, Janet Fitch and Ian Fleming. I look forward to seeing these wonderful stories in print.

I feel I can get on with the book now. I know where I’m going and I’m much more confident that I’ll get there. That is, after a few alcohol-free days and a big catch-up on sleep.

I LOVE Arvon.


The Next (but one) Big Thing

There has been this meme going round lately – I’m told it is called a “blog-hop” in which writers answer ten questions about the book they are working on, and then tag their writer friends to do the same the following week.  Susanna Jones, one of our Creative Writing lecturers at Royal Holloway, has several published books already, and was kind enough to tag me for this week, so here goes:

1.       What is the working title of your next first book?

I was planning to call it ‘The Gift of Artemis’, which sounds a bit pompous, but ‘Artemis’ Gift’ has a tricky possessive apostrophe, and if I switched the goddess’ name to ‘Diana’, all the Daily Express readers would get over-excited. So, the short answer is, I’m not quite sure. What do you think?

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

People say ‘write what you know’ and I spent twenty years in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, so that seemed like a good place to start.  Also, I was incensed by John Le Carré’s portrayal of pharma companies as nasty, unethical exploiters of African patients in The Constant Gardener, so I wondered if I could redress the balance a little.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

Literary fiction? Cerebral thriller? Medical Mystery Tour?

4. What actors would you choose to play the characters in a movie rendition?

Well, the female protagonist, Sarah, is a researcher in Chemistry at Oxford University.  In my mind’s eye she looks like a woman I was an undergraduate with many years ago.  She has a few Bridget Jonesey qualities, so Renee Zellweger might be an obvious choice, or maybe Rosamund Pike or Jessica Hynes. Helping her is Ben, a rather flippant and cynical young man who works for a biotech start-up company. That’s a job for someone like James McEvoy or Matthew Macfadyen, perhaps.

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Scientists uncover the story of a plant with healing properties, and go in search of it. But they find they are not the only people interested…

6. Is your book represented by an agency?

My agent is Anna Power at Johnson & Alcock.  She signed me up on the basis of my poetry, but I’ve shown Anna a draft of the first chapter and she said she would like to read some more.  So I had better write some more… (I’m writing this to shame myself into getting re-started)

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

You are asking that in the wrong tense.  I’m still working on the first draft.  I’ve had 15,000 words written since 2005. Corporate life and poetry have been in the way ever since. There’s nothing but Facebook, Twitter and housework stopping me now.

8. What other books would you compare this to within your genre?

I’m re-reading A.S.Byatt’s Possession at the moment, for inspiration.  I love the way she weaves in such a huge amount of detail, some fact, some fiction, to make a tale of literary research so intriguing. I also aspire to write like Robertson Davies’ Cornish Trilogy.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Mr Le Carré, as mentioned above.  Plus, I was snoozing in bed one morning and heard a report on the Today programme about the Pringle Archive, which is a real and mysterious collection of medical correspondence collected by an 18th Century Scottish physician. For many years this archive was kept unopened due to a provision in Pringle’s will, but a court case in 2004 overturned this wish, and the bequest was opened up to researchers. I wrote to the Royal College of Physicians of Scotland in Edinburgh, and they let me go and take a look at it. That’s where the trail starts.

10. What else about this book might pique the reader’s interest?

I’m putting in all sorts of detail about ancient medicine and magic, biblical arcana, botanically-based drugs, and the history of science in general from Paracelsus to the Patent Office.

I’ve tagged several writers to tell you about their Next big Thing next Wednesday:

Alexandra Clare is a novelist and short story writer who writes on her long commute by train. Her work is at

Sarah McEvoy is a writer of science fiction and fantasy.  Her facebook page is here.

Kate Noakes is an accomplished poet with three published collections and another one almost ready.  She is working on her first novel and you will find the details here.

Susie Campbell writes poetry and prose, and had just embarked on the MSt course in Oxford. Her blog is here.

Laura Johnson is a friend of Sarah McEvoy’s and asked to be tagged.  I’m looking forward to hearing about her book!