Fiddler at the Phil
I'd never met musician Chris Stout before the launch of RED BONES at the Lit and Phil last Thursday, though I knew of him of course. He grew up on Fair Isle a few years after I worked at the observatory and I went to his parents' wedding party. Then a Shetlander's description of his playing had provided inspiration for Roddy Sinclair, the young musician in WHITE NIGHTS. 'That Chris Stout is such a show-off,' she'd said. 'The way he leaps about all over the stage!' But I wasn't quite sure how we'd work together. He's a big name in traditional music and I know nothing about it at all.
In the end it was a great evening. It helped that Chris looked just like his grandfather who was skipper of the mail boat the Good Shepherd when I worked on the Isle and that Steve, my son-in-law, had done the sound for him when he toured the west coast of Scotland with the band Lindisfarne ten years ago. Chris was happy to play as people arrived and I loved the thought of the audience walking up the grand stairs from Newcastle's Westgate Road to the sound of Shetland fiddle music. RED BONES is set in the island of Whalsay and Chris had learned some traditional tunes from an elderly Whalsay man. He had stories of the trows - the little malevolent men who haunt the islands and who also get a mention in the book.
The Knott Room at the library was packed with friends and members of Newcastle Libraries reading groups, Lit and Phil members and librarians from all over the north east. Julie, my editor and Sara, my agent had made the trek from London. It must have been a nightmare for Kay's volunteers to manage the numbers, especially as my guests carried on chatting and drinking long after the staff wanted to be home. So as ever I'm very grateful to her and to them.
As for Chris, I'd love to work with him again. Thursday was just an informal chat, but I think we could put together a more structured programme of music, stories and readings that would give a real flavour of Shetland. Watch this space!
The only optimistic writer in the world?
After reading articles in the CWA magazine, Red Herrings, about the current financial climate and talking to my publisher and agents, it seems I'm the only writer celebrating now. It's all down to luck and I don't want to gloat - I can remember grinding my teeth when fellow authors boasted about film deals and huge advances and I didn't even have a paperback contract - but things are going OK at the moment. Well, probably better than OK.
The most exciting news is that ITV productions has optioned the Vera Stanhope series and the project seems to be progressing more swiftly than I'd expected. I had a meeting in the summer with the heads of drama and development and loved their enthusiasm for the characters and the place, but I've been optioned before and usually I end up disappointed. This time though, things are moving on. Tim and I had a great couple of days in January showing scriptwriter Paul around what the London team has called Vera-land. It was a chance for us to look at Northumberland, our county, all over again through a stranger's eyes. I was reassured to hand over the novels to a sympathetic foster parent; Paul really understands Vera and I was pleased that he was as thrilled by the post-industrial landscape of the Tyne and North Blyth as the scenic views of hills and coast. He's already working on the second draft of the script. If the project goes ahead I suppose the next stage is casting. It'll be interesting to see who's chosen for Vera. Any ideas?
I'm reasonably optimistic too about publishing in general despite the universal gloom. Crime fiction, especially traditional crime fiction seems to fare well in an economic downturn. Something about escapism and a satisying resolution at the end. Besides, I've never been paid huge advances or had a big marketing budget. The practice of paying ridiculous sums to an untried, if glamorous writer in a macho bidding war, then justifying the lunacy by throwing more money into advertising to ensure sales, has always struck me as bizarre. OK, there might be just a touch of envy here, but if the dire state of publishers' finances brings some equality into the industry I'll be very pleased.
A good publicist can generate media attention - though not necessarily sales: getting books into shops is another matter entirely - without a big budget. I have a VERY good publicist and in the past year she's persuaded Conde Nast travel magazine to commission me to write a short piece about Shetland (I got paid for that), Radio 4 to adapt a novel for the Saturday afternoon drama and to commission a short story (I get paid for those) and Excess Baggage to invite me as a guest to talk to John McCarthy.
Perhaps the credit crunch will encourage more publicists to be similarly imaginative... Well, I told you I was an optimist!