Friday, 13 December 2013

A novelist's voice

I saw a rook today, with a straw in its beak, and I was visited by an inexplicable, unnamed longing; the kind of poignant yearning that one associates with the anguish of youth rather than with the sensible placidity of middle age.” Thus starts Facing the Music written by one Willa Marsh (otherwise known as Marcia Willett).
Facing the Music

In the early days the stories just poured out of Marcia once the dam had finally collapsed and whatever it was that was holding her creative spirit decided that the time had come to let go. In those days she was published by Hodder Headline and they were bringing out a new hardback every six months – Those Who Serve in 1994, Thea’s Parrot and The Courtyard in 1995, The Dipper and Hattie’s Mill in 1996, Starting Over and Second Time Around in 1997. It was Looking Forward (the first book of the Chadwick Trilogy) that broke this mould. Publishers don’t really like trilogies and it was a huge sign of Headline’s confidence in Marcia that they agreed to this one even though it was obvious that these were going to be difficult books to write and the time had come to slow things down a bit and publish annually.
Amy WIngate's Journal

Actually it was even more phenomenal that that sounds. Somewhere along the line, Marcia had found time to write a number of short stories for, amongst other publications, The Mail on Sunday. There is a big difference between writing the sort of novels that Marcia writes (which are character driven – called “vertical writing”) and, for example, adventure or crime novels (which are plot driven – “horizontal writing”). Short stories have to be plot driven.

Vertical writing is very frightening. Indeed, if you attend a writing course you will be told that “writing into thin air” is, quite simply, wrong. It isn’t but the ability to do it and pull it off is very rare: I, for example, simply don’t have it: Marcia has. It goes something like this: two “known” characters are brought together in some situation and the writer “listens” to how they react to each other and records what happens. This is easy enough to imagine if you are thinking about a couple of close friends or relatives. You know how they work and you would be able to make a good guess at the outcome. From then on every interaction is treated the same way which is why a novelist can be convinced that A is going to marry B only to be shocked to discover that this is not the case. A wants to marry C and B is . . . well, that depends on who B is: deeply upset, relieved, indifferent.
Sisters Under the Skin

Anyway, Marcia was well ahead of herself so she decided to take one of these short stories to see whether she would like some extended horizontal writing for a change; the chance to explore something completely different. Her agent asked her what she was doing.

“Nothing”, said Marcia, innocently.

“Rubbish,” rejoined Dinah. “Tell me, you’re writing something, aren’t you?”

“No, not really.”

“What does that mean?”

“Well, its not a proper book.”

At which point Dinah insisted she see the manuscript. She agreed that it was not a “Marcia Willett” but that it ought to be published. She offered the manuscript to Sceptre and they wanted to buy it. The problem was that this could not be published under the name of Marcia Willett and we spent a few totally hilarious days trying to come up with something suitable. Finally it was Dinah who came up with the answer: Willa Marsh. That first book, Amy Wingate’s Journal was to be followed by three more, including Facing the Music.
The Quick and the Dead

Thus it was that we all realised that there where two voices inside Marcia: one who was hooked on vertical writing (Marcia – who is a really nice person) and one who yearned for some horizontal writing (Willa – who has a rather wicked and naughty streak).

Then came the day when the two voices began to merge – in The Children’s Hour – and Dinah decided the time had come to move Marcia on to a new publisher: Transworld. Since then Marcia’s books have become slightly darker, slightly more edgy (and therefore slightly more close to real life) as she has allowed characters to come into focus who, in the early days, she would have banished. Despite this I am sure all her readers would agree that she holds onto those two characteristics that are to be found in every book: the concepts of redemption and hope.

As I write, both Hodder Headline and Transworld have published twelve books each so the next one out – in 2014 – will nudge Transworld into the lead.

So what happened to the Willa Marsh books? Well, here in the UK they are out of print but, and much to Marcia’s delight, they have been published by one of the literary publishers in France, Editions Autrement. They have all four books in print and have now bought The Children’s Hour but it will be published under the name of that well known author in France (with reviews in La Figaro), Willa Marsh.

And what brought all this on? Well, we were in the lower car park in Totnes the other day and I saw a crow with some paper (not a twig) in its beak which it was carrying to the nest which he and his mate were busy repairing. This is a bit earlier than I would expect but I expect they know what they are doing.

Here we see Mr Pickle in the arms of Mr Fickle. Well, that's where he would be, isn't it? If you want to know more about what Fickle and Pickle get up to in real life click here. You will then learn, among many other things, that one of them has been rescued on no less than three occasions.