Thursday, 26 April 2012

A Deep Breath in London

BREATHE Welcome Thank you for coming out tonight Thank you to Tim and Simon for having me Lovely to see you all I’ll just get used to being up here, talk a little about my book, then it’s prosecco time BREATHE My daughter said that as I’ve written a funny book about sex in Italy that I should be able to give a funny talk about sex in Italy. I don’t know that it’s going to be so easy. This is my first published novel and my first book launch, so please excuse my shakiness. BREATHE I’ll speak briefly about three things: confusing the narrator with the author and how not to do this; working with an independent publisher at a time when everybody is writing about vampires or sugar-free erotica; and then I’ll read a little and send you off to have a drink. BREATHE My name is Catherine, I am Australian from Sydney. I ran away to Paris when I was 21 thinking I was Simone de Beauvoir. I WASN’T. I ended up babysitting and writing my first novel above a sweatshop, then hanging out in the square listening to the Congolese ladies, and pushing a pram all the way around Paris so I wouldn’t have to do baby things. I think I was the worst babysitter in the world. I married young and spent the next 15 or so years between Europe and Africa, with nine years in Accra. I don’t talk about any of this in the book. Although it is throughout my book of short stories which is coming out next year, so maybe if we don’t spill too many drinks I’ll be here again next year.
My character in The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy is not me at all. The book is written in the first person and my character is called Marilyn Wade. But she has curves AND I DO NOT. She is half-Hungarian and English and I am a total mongrel like most colonial-descended Australians. Like my character, I also lived in Milan for a year and a half BUT I was a young fiancée pretending to teach English, whereas Marilyn is a faded divorcee who has been dumped. BREATHE WHY DOES MARILYN COME TO ITALY TO RESET HER LIFE? There is a rumour in her neighbourhood that a divorced woman called Jean Harper went on a singles tour to South America and met a Milanese solicitor who swept her off her feet. The rumour was that she’d had a love child and had moved to Milan. Marilyn takes off to Milan, leaving her ex-husband with his new lover, her teenagers in school, and starts her kinky transition involving ESPRESSO AND LINGUISTICS. She comes across a cheeky Australian and her virile agronomist lover, a bi-sexual benefactor from Hong Kong who gives her an unlikely job, a Swiss model agency director with an obsession for waif models, a Nigerian immigrant who sells Vietnamese socks. It is a romance for TIRED MOTHERS OR LATE BLOOMERS or people who are curious to see what it’s like to live in today’s Italy – where there are naked dancing girls on television and in parliament, and the country has been turned into a modern day Fellini film by Mr. Berlusconi.
WHY DID I END UP WRITING THIS BOOK AND TELLING THIS STORY? About four years ago I was bogged down in the revisions of a big novel set in Ghana and a friend suggested I write something set in Italy, something funny. I’ve not read many funny books and had hardly read any chick lit at all, but Emily set my wheels turning. I drove back to my place from hers – from Treviso to Albettone about an hour and a half on a white-hot summer morning – and by the time I reached home I had a title and a first line. I set myself up in the chicken shed next to house with my laptop and extension cord, so I couldn’t hear my kids. I wrote until it was too cold to stay outside and I think I was finished by winter. The title and the first line stayed the same. BREATHE WORKING WITH AN INDEPENDENT PUBLISHER AND HOW BLODDY HARD IT IS TO GET PUBLISHED IF YOU DON’T WRITE ABOUT VAMPIRES When I was young I assumed I would burst onto the literary scene and become another Simone de Beauvoir. It didn’t happen, as I told you. So I went to Africa and had babies. BREATHE When I came back to Europe nine years ago I took a while to get back to writing. A novel – even a bad novel – really takes YEARS to produce, then there are years of rejection, depression, divorces, kids, boyfriends AND SKIING LESSONS. When I finished The Divorced Lady’s Companion I thought it would be easier to publish women’s commercial than a literary work, BUT IT WAS JUST AS HARD! Many books in the chick lit category are written ABOUT thirty-year-old career women BY thirty-year-old women with careers. I read a few and couldn’t help thinking that there was a cut-off point in what was being published. There were less stories about over40s – which is when I think things get really challenging. WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE TODDLERS START GETTING TATTOOS, what happens when you have wrinkles galore, and your prime is behind you rather than stretching out into the sunset? At one point I was thinking of the Eat Pray Love market without the praying and the self-analysis (I saw it in the aeroplane to Australia). I was convinced there would be an interest in an older woman’s story about teenagers, ex-husbands, new lovers and finding A DECENT WAY TO GROW OLDER without resorting to botox or finishing up on an ashram. BREATHE And so I submitted and submitted and submitted.
I was lucky that when I submitted to my publisher they were just starting out with a fiction list after establishing themselves in the poetry field. They were enthusiastic from the start and it’s just like those articles you read – they are warm and friendly and working together has been completely pain-free. Being a smaller company it’s been up to me how much I want to try to market the novel beyond the indie book scene and I’ve tried hard online and hope it brings some results. Independent books don’t always make it into the newspapers, and independent books don’t always make massive sales. And in a market that’s always hungry for the next-best-thing A LOT OF THEM run on love and belief and not economics. I say all this because I want you to think about the people who write, produce and sell ODD REWARDING books that don’t talk about vampires or provide sugar-free erotica. BREATHE
Lastly, DO REMEMBER TO SUPPORT INDEPENDENT BOOKSHOPS! The bookselling industry is changing rapidly at the moment with the expansion of ebook publishing and online book buying. I’m guilty of it too – I live in the Italian countryside and I love receiving my used Amazon books and I have a 10kg luggage limit with Ryan air, so I won’t be bringing many books home with me. But if you’re here tonight you’re probably a book lover anyway so do continue to savour independent bookshops. Hang out in them, order your copies from them. Go inside and order my book! Thank you I’ll now read two short excerpts and then I’ll ask any questions you may have. --- ps: Thank you Downith! AND AN ENORMOUS PROSECCO GRAZIE TO TIM AND SIMON OF THE BIG GREEN BOOKSHOP IN LONDONTOWN!!!

Monday, 16 April 2012

The Day of Muddy Floors and Exhilaration

This is photo of myself and the clan. I need to post to show myself where I was before I came back to Italy and started writing again. Most of those kids are taller than me now. They've had to put up with my moods, my dirty floors, my distracted cooking, my vast absences and crazy highs. Like today.

Today is UK release day. And in some massive way I've made it. Lived long enough to see a book of mine published and out there and hopefully loved by more than a dozen readers. Relief? Agitation? Review envy? It's all there. I am waiting for serenity to descend but instead I am thinking PRINT OUT YOUR PLANE TICKETS, MAKE SURE YOUR FAV JEANS AREN'T IN THE WASH, BE FLIPPANT ON TWITTER - oh and eat something.

The winners of last week's competition are Rosy and Ingrid so big congratulations and thank you to all for trying out my twisted questions! Rosy's answers were the only ones that were spot on and Ingrid's name was drawn out of a hat by DJ Omar. Thanks again! I'll send your copies out.

I'd love to offer prosecco all around and any of you who are in London might want to come to the book launch on Monday 23rd in north London's Big Green Bookshop. The more the merrier. In the mean time congrats to my good mate Averil on her VERY GOOD NEWS and thanks for loving the book. Here is an excerpt from the first chapter.


An old friend of mine named Jean fell through a tear in her marriage and landed on her feet. Jean met a solicitor from Milan on a singles trekking tour in Peru and packed her bags one autumn. She sold the house with its clutch of hydrangeas. Her adolescent children learnt Italian with ease. It was reported that at forty-four, Jean gave the Milanese man a chubby male love-child.

Jean wasn’t really a close friend of mine, though we had married the same year and our children were the same wretched ages. The parallel in our stories narrowed one quiet Sunday afternoon in the kitchen, when my husband Peter informed me he had fallen in love with a woman named Danielle and was moving to a flat in Shepherd’s Bush. His words exerted visceral, slow-release punches. I realised he had been naked in the arms of another woman. The first person I thought of was Jean in Milan, framed with dabs of gold from a painter’s brush and a corona of religious spurs. Jean in that moment became my patron saint.

In the aftermath I dropped a stone while waiting for my outrage to burst like rotten fruit on cement. It never happened. Rather, I was curious to know of Danielle’s hair colour and whether her neck had train tracks already faintly sketched; if she blew her nose in public and where she bought her shoes; whether her ovaries were better kernels than mine. I asked Peter. He gave me strained, sideways looks. He refused to include me in this new threesome and I quickly became the lone mare put out to pasture, the divorcée. I walked woodenly through the streets and couldn’t understand how the brand had come to be on my forehead, but now it was there.

Everything that I had taken as given in my life had been swept away.

Several weeks into the summer, I took a leaf from Jean’s book and joined a tour group. I didn’t fancy a long plane journey and my idea of a trek was an aisle-by-aisle supermarket excursion, so I folded away the Andes, Himalayas and Kilimanjaro brochures. I also wasn’t keen on declaring myself a single. That had a discarded, forty-something ring to it, and I was terrified of ashen widowers called Ted with yellow teeth. I might have known: my group in Rouen consisted of three young nuns from Tanzania, a haggard gay couple in toupees and crumpled lapels, and the inevitable New Zealander. The tour guide, Sylvie, was bonking the New Zealander by the second night.

I felt a deepening heaviness on returning to the house. Had Jean felt like this before she had unearthed the man who’d reset her life? Days later Peter came around in a hired truck to collect the last of his things. I watched him carry out his university papers from the attic and a deck-chair in the garden that a great-uncle had carted off a P & O liner. He took away the bosomy Henry Moore-style sculpture that had always stood in our living room, inherited from his bohemian aunt. The new lovers were ready to decorate, Peter said, and I figured that bosomy was the flavour of the day.

Later, his guard was down in the sunshine and he suggested I prepare a cup of tea in the garden, where we sat down with new, blinking formality.

‘You know, you’ve done wonders with this patch of ground.’ He looked around with detachment at the trellises we’d fixed together, as though he’d never seen them before. His lower lip had become more sensual and pronounced. ‘So how was the history trip to France? Did you meet anyone? We’re all keen for you to, you know, move ahead. I’ve spoken with the children. They want you to savour life. You have a right to it all, Marilyn, remember that.’

I was alarmed to feel Peter prodding about my soul with his poker. Peter bought foreign programmes for a huge television network. He had spent years sorting the sheep from the goats and dangling carrots before his audience. I was now seeing the invisible side of Peter I had never known. He was trying to sell me the new Marilyn reality show: Here’s Marilyn sobbing on the Channel crossing. And here she is crying into a très, très grand bag of French crisps.

He drove off in a fine mood and I shut the front gate under the Queen Caroline roses. I ate a greasy bar of chocolate I found in my daughter’s pocket and turned on a documentary about Mussolini with his harsh, captivating face and his thwarted escape to Switzerland. Mussolini and his lover were brought back to Milan and hung upside down like fowls.

Whatever Peter had said to the children about Danielle, it clearly hadn’t upset them. School recommenced and they came home bickering from the station, emptying the refrigerator as voraciously as ever, wandering distractedly and untouched to their rooms. For years our family life had provided book-ends for Peter’s long, heavy working week. And now he had removed himself from our lives for good. I waited for Vanessa to break down or for Eddy to come sniffling into my bed, but hugged myself under the covers alone.

In fact Peter had been quick to install a new schedule so that no one missed a beat. Every other weekend he drove the children down to Brighton where Danielle, whose name bobbed about like an apple in a bucket, had a place. On Sunday night they were dropped at the corner and burst shrill and clear-eyed into the house.
After a stretch of this I called Peter. ‘What do you mean, I’m dismantling you?’ he cried. ‘We’re all trying to give you some time to yourself. Some time to rebuild. You need some personal space around you, you know, now that you’re on your own,’ Peter said with ugly clarity. ‘Read up, spend some time online. Go into the city. Be open about it.’

But I didn’t feel like opening up any further, any more than I had already been split apart. On one of those first weekends alone I brought out our wedding album plus a couple of boxes of photographs. Seventeen years ago we looked like a pair of intercourse-driven sods. Peter’s career hadn’t taken off and I was swimming with nausea from our daughter’s tiny seed inside of me. Peter’s gestures – an arm beckoning me, a disarming clutch – were those of the man who used to say he wanted to die in my grasp. What had happened? I put aside the series of awkward, non-art house photographs he had taken of my stretching belly, which revealed the fright and embarrassment in my eyes. Then there was Vanessa, my shrieking cub, my downy pink alien in a home-knitted blanket. I combed through masses of baby photographs with their limpid physical cadences: the first smiles, the first steps on soft summer grass. Oddly, I came across an unfamiliar photo of my neighbour Jean Harper and I holding onto our toddlers down by the river, surrounded by ducks. It was an unexpected surprise. My patron saint was reaching out from her new life to speak to me. Try as I might, I could not recall who took the photograph or what we might have said to each other that afternoon. I never took my children to the river and I hated ducks.

After that I used Jean’s photograph as a bookmark. I went for a job interview at a local sports clinic and returned to work as a physiotherapist. Nearly four months down the line, it seemed I had turned the first corner in my new single life. Each day it gave me immense pleasure to use my hands to deliver relief to other people in pain. I came home exhausted, arms and shoulders aching. I worked with a young girl who had just had the pins removed from her broken leg and an elderly woman who told me my hands were like angels’ wings.

But only weeks into the job, one morning the street was buzzing with police cars and the clinic was sealed off. I watched my boss Mrs Giles being frogmarched into a vehicle, blood all over her tunic. Apparently Mrs Giles had displaced Mr Giles’ head with a hunting rifle after she found him canoodling with a nurse called Sheneen. I drove home stunned in my crepe soled shoes and blue uniform. The postman was zigzagging at the far end of the street. Some travel company had obviously anticipated my unemployed status and the letter-box was stuffed with a fresh batch of brochures for singles tours: The Missionary Trail in Coastal China, Cro-Magnon Man in the Swiss Alps, Rock Wallabies in Tasmania …

Peter commiserated briefly about my job loss and then suddenly, out of the blue, asked if I were ready to meet Danielle. So far, according to our family and few communal friends, it had been a seamless separation. I listened to my ex-husband’s new upbeat voice. He sounded as though he were headed to a restaurant in a lane with candles on wonky tables, and then a jazz concert afterwards. He sounded as though he had just had fantastic sex. I began to shake all over, thinking of quiet Mrs Giles raising the gun to her husband’s head. Then, bang! – and all the splattered mulch on the walls.

I cut him off and threw away the phone. I cursed Sheneen and Danielle and wept into the couch.

Probably the person I have always relied upon most is my close friend Pamela who is a clairvoyant. Pamela and I grew up in identical council terraces, both of us possessing mothers with foreign accents that were often lightly mocked by shopkeepers. My mother was Hungarian with robust bones. Pamela’s mum was Irish with a mild pale face. The two women mistrusted each other’s food and ways and never got along.

But Pamela and I stayed friends for years. She hadn’t moved from our old neighbourhood, which had grown quite classy now, and had five children with three different fathers. One of her sons was a monk in Burma. One of the girls sang with a pop group that had hit the charts. Pamela had a massive tattoo all over her back from the early days, before Buddhist mantras and barbed wire biceps. She didn’t give a toss. Every two or three months she would come all the way to my house from the city in her pompous old Bentley, and we would moan to each other and have a laugh before getting blind drunk.

A few days after the clinic was shut down Pamela’s car appeared on the front lawn. I had known this was coming. Ever since Peter had walked out I had avoided lifting up the phone and dialling her, and had dodged her phone calls for weeks. I drew across the curtain and saw her lighting a fag on our garden path. I tiptoed to the door.

‘Why on earth didn’t you tell me?’ she said sharply. ‘He’s taken off, the bastard! You’re getting divorced.’

I realised that our intimacy and her creepy intuition had joined hands. She pushed past me into the house and I saw a little bump pushing through her sweater where I guessed she’d finally had her nipple pierced.

‘So he’s left you for some gorgeous young girl?’

My face began to dissolve into tears.

‘Not to worry,’ she muttered. ‘They won’t last.’

She went to her usual sofa and pulled down a Greek souvenir ashtray from the bookshelf. Pamela was the only person who smoked in my house. I looked at her fuming my way.

‘Why didn’t you want to tell me?’ she snapped. ‘Stop standing there and go and get some of that Chenin blanc he usually hides out the back.’

I brought out one of Peter’s bottles and uncorked it mechanically, then fumbled around for a pair of glasses. I slurped in some wine and began to weep.

‘There, there now.’ She came over and soothed me. ‘I know I needn’t have been so cross. But that’s what I’ve come to tell you about. You see, I’ve been having the oddest dreams about you … and Peter, God curse him. It’s been going on for weeks. People speaking foreign languages. You looking as though you’re more than half-drunk. Some perky-looking girl and an Asian guy in a coat.’ She broke off and smiled at my sobbing face. ‘Did you know I had my nipple pierced?’ She whipped up her jumper and pulled down her bra to show me. It looked like a fish-hook trapped under the skin. ‘Eric’s done one too so we’ll both be setting off the metal detectors.’

I blubbered into Peter’s Chenin blanc. Pamela rattled on about her spot on one of the breakfast television programmes that morning, where she had an on-and-off job ever since she forecast the flooding of New Orleans in a local newspaper. She told me about the make-up woman crying over her failed IVF, while she was certain the woman’s womb carried a tiny fertilised seed. And then she talked about the blond interviewer, very famous and rude, who’d had sex with three men the night before. Pamela sat back puffing, one nipple sticking up like a tin soldier under her old Vivienne Westwood jumper. ‘Look love, I know you’re blocking me out, you always have done. So we won’t go there then, how about that? But in the meantime what about a sandwich, or even some Hungarian leftovers. I have an appetite to murder!’

I turned on some Annie Lennox and brought out some cheese and salami and dark bread. Later, I opened the bottle of grappa Peter and I had bought on our trip to Venice last winter. A couple of times in the tasteful sponge-painted hotel room, we’d carefully made love. Then, on the cheap flight back, there’d been so much turbulence over the Alps that we had held hands. Peter’s moist fingers had fastened and unfastened over mine as the violent blue sky tossed us between air currents. I had savoured the way he clung to me.

But then I remembered the way he had trailed off into the terminal with his phone cupped to his cheek. That was when the grappa turned as sharp as knives.

I don’t know how Pamela drove home that evening, or what I prepared for the children for supper, or how I propelled them to school the next day. I know I was dragged to the computer that morning as though by a force, where I signed up on a dating site and within moments began to chat to a man named Brett. Brett was over from Hong Kong visiting his sister, (people speaking foreign languages?) and had nothing to do that day. I showered and dressed.

We met in Leicester Square and ventured into Starbucks, ordering twin cappuccinos. He too was divorced. His ex-wife worked in a merchant bank in Hong Kong. Tall and crisp-looking, he looked like a detective from an Asian crime film. His cropped greying hair was plugged thickly into the top of his forehead. I had never seen such determined hair growth except on dolls. Brett spoke at length about internet dating and how I shouldn’t take any type of risk, even chiding me for meeting him so readily. I felt glad of his protection. He told me how he had flown to Mexico to visit a woman he had chatted with every day for six months. I was disappointed, picturing tall Brett meeting a woman with Frida Kahlo allure.

Brett’s tone then fell to a more intimate register and I realised we had been talking for nearly two hours. I was famished. We moved on into Chinatown, where it seemed that many of the restaurants had emptied for the afternoon. Brett said he had some old Cantonese friends who would serve us all the same, so we began to wander down side-streets, a discreet cut-out of safety space running between our bodies. People still streamed everywhere so I sensed no alarm bells ringing, occasionally glancing at the handsome couple we made.

But then Brett’s hand came to rest on the small of my back. I guess I jarred. He quickly removed it and stepped backwards, hands raised.

‘I’m so sorry,’ he said, bowing his head. ‘But this is the restaurant. You see? To the left here. Of course, if you’d rather not go in … ‘

It was the type of dive one of Peter’s cronies might have sent us to, urging us to try the Peking Duck. A surge of nausea rose from yesterday’s grappa and I stood dehydrated, my will buzzing, unable to free fall towards the foreign man. The street had emptied. I felt a twang of fear. Up on the main street I saw an older woman behind a pushchair. In a shaft of afternoon light it looked like Jean. In fact at that moment I was certain it was Jean.

Brett’s lips opened hungrily and with a spicy taste over mine, his tongue plunging inside with a big randy wetness. I jerked away and ran towards the street screaming.

Order at your nearest independent bookshop or at

Friday, 6 April 2012

Lovin' Me Lovin' You - the Giveaway Issue


As countdown to publication marches on I find myself in a frenzy of book promotion, worrying that my scribblings will never be enough to send this baby into the fray. On Wednesday I wrote a piece about Women's Commercial Lit: Does the Object of Desire Always Have to Be a Hot Twenty-Something? Fun, silly, but ultimately I believe that the discerning 40+ year old seeks an epiphany that goes beyond a tasty tryst. No? Then yesterday (in my uggs sitting outside on a wet bench) I did my first phone interview, blabbing and blabbing (sorry Lee) about the poverty of women's self-image in this country, where women often feel too insecure to age with grace. Hence a batch of 40-year-old Barbies at the school gates whose Gucci bags are as taut and tanned as their faces.

I also learned that my aunt is concerned my mother will not like the semi-hard sex scenes. And I learned that my mother can't wait to get her hands the book! I heard from a friend who was reading hers at the hairdresser's (thanks Downith) and another in Germany who has had hers snatched by a friend. I was even accosted by the optometrist during my daughter's appointment yesterday, an aspiring writer who studies English religiously, who refused a gift copy and preferred to pay this messy-looking writer with bright red lipstick. Even the lady at the local post office - bless her and her calender of Maori rugby players, always a such pleasure to the eyes - has demanded I bring a copy for her to buy next time I am in there sending off a blogger review copies!

My goodness - my first sales! These are all fairly localised and in fact I wrote a more telling article last week about book promotion while your target market is in another neck of the woods. Details will follow about this rash of activity. Already we are told that many many valid authors are having trouble selling their manuscripts. That accomplished, we must clear the hurdle of distance with hours and hours online. It helps - yes - and as generous Trashionista editor Elle Symonds says, it's 'well worthwhile', but holymoly I feel as though I am glued to the screen and I don't know how but Ivana-the-lovely-optometrist says that these eyes are still hot to trot!

I wanted to post my first chapter but now that seems rather long after my rave, so I will do another post early next week. **I DO WANT TO MENTION THAT I AM HAVING MY FIRST GIVEAWAY AND INVITE YOU TO TAKE PART**. I will select two winners from wherever you hail on our fair and chastised globe. Here are the questions:

1. My biggest gripe with Italian men is that they:

A. are attached to their mothers
B. leave wet towels on the floor
C. spend too much time in front of the mirror
D. wear white jeans

2. The reason I adore Italian men is because they

A. know how to treat a lady
B. are great in bed
C. ski hard
D. take you to divine restaurants

If you've read my blog before you won't have any trouble with these flimsy questions. If you're new to this zone then just take an educated guess and add your email address to your answer/comment. The two winners will be chosen by my half-Italian Dubstep DJ son Omar, who STILL has to learn how to open a prosecco bottle before coming to the book launch in London.