Friday, 30 March 2012


Many years ago, Marcia was speaking at one or other of the literary festivals and she shared a platform with a man who had just seen his first book published. It really does not matter where it was or who he was – in fact it is best if neither are named.

This chap (very likeable, by the way) spoke first and explained how, having decided that he would be a writer, he had discovered his ‛voice’.

His first job, he explained, was to research the market in order to determine which genre was flourishing at that time. Next on the ‛to do’ list was to read authors writing in that genre, comparing the ‛voices’ of the most successful with those of the least. Then, and only then, did he decide on the style that he would employ and the ‛voice’ he would develop.

To my ears it all sounded rather cold and clinical but that first book was a great success and the next while ‟not as good as his last one, dear″ sold fairly well. After that he seemed to sink without trace.

Hacks like me don’t have a ‛voice’. Nearly everything that I have written has been commissioned (and usually pretty dull stuff such as company reports, instruction manuals, copy for sales literature and the like) or simple journalism. Each of these requirements means using a different 'style' (not really a ‛voice’) although I suspect that over time I have developed a set of mannerisms and a vocabulary which might mean that my writing has a recognisable hallmark but that, I would suggest, is something very different.

Marcia, having never actually decided that she would be writer, did nothing to find a voice. Jane Austen spoke of her writer's canvas as a "small, square, two inches of ivory." There are various ways of interpreting this but the most likely is that she meant that she wrote about only the life she knew: the narrow life of the country gentry in Georgian times. When Marcia finally agreed to try to write a novel, she decided that she too would stick to what she knew and that her "two square inches of ivory" was the world inhabited by the wives of officers in the Royal Navy and especially in those who served as submariners.

Like Austen, the ivory may have been quite small but the world Marcia created in that first novel (Those Who Serve) covered as wide a range of human emotions and conditions as any Austen novel but did she have a ‛voice’ at that time? In any event, what is a writer’s ‛voice’?

Neither of us thought about it for some time and then when the stories poured out of Marcia as if a dam had been breached (with one appearing in the book shops every six months) she realised that there was no point in writing another book until the publishing process caught her up. I suggested that she write some short stories just for a bit of fun and one of them grabbed her. Soon she developed it into a full length novel: Amy Wingate’s Journal. This was a story about a neurotic woman in her sixties who had been advised to try to write her problems out in a journal. In modern parlance, ‛it contains scenes that some might find distressing’.

Don’t misunderstand, there was no great description of violence or sexual activity but there was the air that both could – had? – become out of control at some time during Amy’s life.

Whatever else you could say about this book, the 'voice' was a very different to the one behind the Marcia Willett books. Marcia’s agent thought so too. She was determined to have the books published but she knew that this could not be under Marcia’s name.

Thus was Willa Marsh conceived. To our great delight, this book was reviewed in The Times and the quote from that – ‛A voice for our times.’ – appeared on the other three Willa Marsh books.

The Marcia Willett voice is a caring, compassionate and spiritual voice where all the major characters are so fully developed and multi-dimensional that many readers have a hard time remembering that they really are fictional. The Willa Marsh voice is almost the opposite: spiky, naughty and with little regard for people’s feelings, this is black humour at its most subtle. Incidentally, it is interesting that the French no longer publish Marcia Willett (they stopped when Marcia wrote a scene in which one of her dogs ‛thought’ in words: ‛we cannot cope with talking dogs.’) but one of their more literary publishing houses, Autrement, has bought all four WM books and has published three already. A French film company has bought the first two options on a film version of Sisters Under the Skin and all the indications are that this will be produced in the not too distant future.

So Marcia ended up with two voices and we know that not all Marcia Willett readers like the Willa Marsh books. After a talk at a festival, one woman raised her hand during question time and said, ‛I have just read one of the books you wrote under the name Willa Marsh,’ a pause. ‛And I thought you were such a nice person!’

These two voices began to merge. There are traces of Willa in Forgotten Laughter and more than traces in The Children’s Hour. Now I think it is true to say that the voices have more or less come together: we see the wonderfully developed characters of Marcia Willett treated with great fondness and understanding living in a world which tends to be turned almost upside down as Willa Marsh creates a slightly surreal plot line. Nevertheless, one thing never seems to change: at the end of each novel there is a feeling of hope and the real possibility that it really could all end happily ever after but with the proviso that it is much more likely that there are more storms ahead.

Would Marcia’s voice have been different is she had decided to become a writer and researched for her niche before starting out? Would she have continued to be as popular as she is twenty-eight books later if she had? We shall never know the answer to either question.


Last week I mentioned that tadpoles eat dead fish. I did not expect to be able to test that but I have.

About this time each year I have to weed the ponds. It is amazing how quickly these plants grow and form a dense mass. Nature abhors a vacuum – and a pond. Ponds start by being just water. Then water weeds begin to grow. Generally some of them are brought in but we have quite a few species that have just arrived. Whether this is thanks to wind blown seeds or because they have cadged a lift in on a bird I have no idea but come they do. As these weeds grow, they attract other plant species which are semi-aquatic, such as reeds and sedges which can form quite dense masses floating on the surface. Meanwhile, all of these plants die down and the rotting vegetation falls to the bottom of the pond so, in a surprisingly short space of time, the pond become a bog or marsh and then, when trees and shrubs gain a foothold, terra firma.

It is to avoid this that I remove weed each year and put it on the compost heap where it rots down and is used to feed our runner beans, etc. a couple of years later. These heaps of weeds spend a few days piled at the pond edge so that all the newts, beetles, larva and other invertebrates can crawl back into the water. Anyway, there in amongst all this weed was a dead fish – a carp no more than an inch and a half long. The obvious thing to do was to put it in the tadpolarium. Within a minute at the most, it was being attacked by the tadpoles and all signs had gone within three days.

Meanwhile I carried out another feeding test. Jossie has four ‛Frolics’ for breakfast and for supper. These are made from a combination of cereals, other vegetable extracts and various meat extracts. They are easy to handle so I thought I would try them out. I now know that frog tadpoles really enjoy Frolics but I am not so sure about the toad tadpoles. They have some tuna they have been eating and they are, of course, a week younger than their froggy cousins but so far they have shown no interest in the half-Frolic I gave them yesterday.

Time will tell.