Happy Birthday dear Biologico

24598_101777316529563_3127801_nToday is my father’s birthday. Or at least it would have been, but he died in January 2014.
I didn’t really know him until I was a teenager. My mother and he split up when I was two. She and I moved to Sweden then England and we had no contact with him until we went back to Italy over ten years later. When he first met me after all that time, he was disappointed. I didn’t speak Italian, I had no idea who Dante was, and my hero was John Travolta. “I see you have inherited my looks and your mother’s brains, a most unfortunate way for things to have turned out,” was one of the first things he said to me. It seemed too late to call him ‘daddy’ so he became ‘biologico’ for obvious reasons.
He was not the most patient man, and this was before the days when children had any say in their upbringing whatsoever. Our first few years together were spent battling . Him battling to make me more intelligent, me battling to remain in the mediocrity I felt comfortable with. I am now struggling with a similar situation, trying to stop my own teenage daughter from being as stupid as I was.
At the time of course I was sure he was wrong, that how one spoke was irrelevant, that learning Dante was utterly ridiculous and that there was no real reason to read books or stop smoking. But now on his birthday I look back on all his efforts as a kind of gift. I never did learn the Divine Comedy off by heart (as he did) but I am glad that he at least opened my eyes to a world above John Travolta, smoking cigarettes and ghastly pop music.
I guess that is all you can do with children, show them what’s out there, and hope they pick up on it. Even if it takes several years for the message to get through. Sometimes it probably doesn’t even get through.1008974_655292077863679_1983957060_o
As Dorothy Parker put it so well while on a quiz show trying to use the word horticulture in a sentence: “You can lead a whore to culture, but you can’t make her think.”
I wish he were here today of course, I would phone him up and wish him Happy Birthday, he would immediately be able to tell if something was bothering me and give me some advice on how to deal with it, then he would say “grazie per la chiamata”, hang up and get back to his writing.
The best way to remember him will be to spend the day writing. He was a firm believer in working every day, and not letting too much nonsense get in the way. Of course sometimes as far as he was concerned I was the nonsense, he did constantly remind me of how stupid I was, which at the time felt kind of harsh, but looking back on it now seems fair.
Happy Birthday dear Biologico, and thank you.

What to wear, or not to wear?

I am back at Viva Mayr for the first time since 2008. I landed late last night and have woken up to a snow-covered landscape. The staff all wear white, thus matching the surroundings. In fact some of the clients are in white too, but you can tell they are clients because they shuffle along in their spa slippers, those horrid contraptions that make you sound like an old person, and their outfits are the Viva fluffy white dressing gowns.
One of my main dilemmas yesterday was what to pack. Granted this is not an unusual dilemma for me, but there were many factors to consider. First it is minus 3 degrees here. So I needed warm clothes. But then again if you’re in a spa you don’t really go out? But what if you want to go out? And then at the end of this trip I have Bea’s confirmation, and I am not going to that in old person’s slippers and a fluffy white dressing gown.imgres
Having unpacked I have realised I have nothing to wear. It is boiling hot inside the clinic, I may as well have planned for a holiday in the Caribbean. The numerous pairs of jeans, three polo necks and two fur gillets will be of no use whatsoever. I will have to wear gym kit for the week.
Of course I have ventured out of my room to check out what the others are all wearing. So far nothing too maddening. By that I mean nothing that has induced a bout of ‘outfit envy’. There is a young lady, I would guess early to mid twenties, who looks just like Bridget Jones. She is wearing some extremely floppy pyjamas and a dressing gown that has seen better days. She is shuffling around in the old person’s slippers to complete the look. I think she’s probably extremely pretty but it’s hard to tell under all the layers of comfort clothing. She looks downcast, maybe even heartbroken à la Jones?
The rest are mainly in track-suits or gym kit. There are a couple of Arab girls wearing flip-flops, not a bad call, and certainly beats the slipper look.
I saw one woman in jeans and shoes, but she must be new.
The men are ALL wearing their white dressing gowns, which makes me think they have packed nothing but suits, the fools. But it is only breakfast so maybe we will all dress for lunch or dinner? I was hoping there might be a spa shop where I could replenish my wardrobe but sadly there isn’t. So I will just have to wear some more gym kit, or maybe the hideous jeggings I packed on the proviso that I never wear them anyway and can throw them away if they don’t work here.
My main aim though while here is not to locate the ideal outfit but to write a book. Some of you may remember The Viva Mayr Diet, a book I wrote with Dr Stossier (the man who runs the clinic) in 2008. We have decided to write a follow-up book. Title yet to be determined, but the main theme is ageing (my favourite topic) and how to age in a healthy (that is Viva Mayr) way.
Off I shuffle now to do some research….

Interview with Nawal El Saadawi

Nawal El Saadawi has returned to Cairo where intends to stay until she dies. Not that she feels particularly at home there.
“Home is not about where I am. I would not call Cairo home. I feel at home wherever I meet people I feel at home with,” she tells me sitting at her desk in her Cairo apartment. “I feel at home now while we are talking, do you feel the same? I feel like I’ve known you for 100 years. We are talking about very intimate things, we enjoy ourselves. We have lost the feeling of the external world. And we got rid of the photographer,” she throws her head back and laughs, referring to the young lady who was with us to take her picture for this feature. imgres
Nawal El Sadaawi laughs easily. When she does so her thick curly silver hair bounces around her still youthful face giving the impression of a woman half her age. She takes my hand. “We can talk and talk and you can stay until tomorrow morning and we will never stop talking, that’s home, that’s home to me.”
After three years of exile in the United States Sadaawi has returned to her small apartment in one of Cairo’s less salubrious areas. The entrance looks like it hasn’t been painted since it was built. One rickety lift serves all the floors in the building. Sadaawi is on the 26th floor, away from the dust and noise below in the “cement city” as she calls Cairo. But the upside is that on a good day she can see the Citadel and the Pyramids from her kitchen window.
In her early 80s, she was born on October 27th 1931, Sadaawi is a woman who polarises opinion in her homeland. Universally adored abroad as a critic of female oppression, in Egypt there are those who wish she would be quiet. Even my driver shakes his head when I mention her and says; “not everyone agrees with her”.
She started questioning patriarchal society when she was a little girl and she hasn’t stopped since. Her outspoken views have led to exile, imprisonment and countless court cases against her and her closest relations.
Just last week three clerics accused her of blasphemy for stating that Islam should be confined to the bedroom rather like sex while discussing her latest campaign, the Global Solidarity for Secular Society. She launched the Egyptian chapter just over a week ago. She calls it a movement aimed at promoting secularism and fighting religious fanaticism.
“We have to separate religion from the state,” she says. “Why should children be forced to study Christianity or Islam? And also the Egyptian constitution is full of contradictions because of the religious influences. In the eyes of the law as a woman I am inferior to a man.”
“Recently they tried to make my husband divorce me,” she says. “They said as a good Muslim he couldn’t be married to an Infidel. I won my case, I am a winner. You must never retreat, when you retreat they hit you, but when you push head on you win. For me no way back head on until death!” she laughs again. Sadaawi has an easy, warm and generous manner. She is still startlingly attractive, despite her advanced years. Her skin is clear and her brown eyes sparkle with wit, mischief and intelligence. She is tall and slim and holds herself like a woman of 20. You get the impression she is extremely strong; both physically and mentally. A little like the illiterate peasant grandmother she talks of often and calls one of her greatest role models. “A rebel with very good genes,” she calls her.
As the star pupil of her school in the village of Kafr Tahla on the banks of the Nile, medical school was a natural choice for the young Nadaawi. “It was also what my parents wanted, “ she says. “It is a respectable profession and also brings in money.” She did extremely well at medical school, going on to become a chest surgeon, a health educator and latterly a psychiatrist.
But it is writing that has always been her main passion.
“I am a medical doctor and a fighter for human rights. But if I had to choose one thing it would be writing,” she explains.
Sadaawi has written 47 books. Over 20 have been translated into English and many other languages. One of her books, Memoirs from the Women’s Prison published in 1984, was written in secret on rolls of loo paper with an eyebrow pencil borrowed from a fellow inmate, a prostitute.
Saadawi was imprisoned for three months for allegedly plotting a coup to overthrow the government with the help of the Bulgarians.
“It was one of my best books because it was written in the agony of a real situation,” she says. “The charges were ridiculous, I don’t even know where Bulgaria is!” She was released a month after Sadat’s assassination.
Her bestselling book, Woman at Point Zero is based on conversations with a prostitute condemned to death for murdering her pimp, has been translated into 30 languages and is studied in schools and universities around the world. But not in Egypt. Why not?
Saadawi laughs. “Never, never will it be studied here,” she exclaims. “It was never even published here, I gave it to a feminist editor here and she asked me how I could defend a prostitute. The critics called me a man-hater.”
It is true that after reading five books by Nawal El Sadawi I can hardly bear to look at Egyptian men. I imagine them at best as cruel bordering on sadistic wife beaters with several child slaves hidden in their damp cellars. Her portrayals of men are relentlessly negative. So is she a man hater? Is it possible to hate men and be married three times?
“Of course I don’t hate men. Women in my books are also very contradictory. I am not a hater of men or women, but I am critical. The fact is that the patriarchal society produces men like this; they too are the victims. People really hate a woman who exposes patriarchy in a very deep way, it’s like you uncover them and make them naked. Men are scared of me because I uncover them in my books. I am a fierce writer, aggressive and precise. The pen is like my scalpel and I pierce them with it.”images
Sadaawi’s first husband was a young freedom fighter who “lost his life because he believed he should liberate Egypt from British rule.” Her second husband was a respected judge whom she married in part because all her friends were telling her she should marry. “There was no real love,” she says, “and he was scared of my writing.” She is now married to Sherif Hetata who was a political prisoner for 13 years. Together they have one son, a film director, and Mona, Sadaawi’s daughter from her first marriage. Her daughter is a poet and a writer and never married.
Sadaawi has championed many causes, the most high profile of which was a campaign against female circumcision. There is a heart-breaking passage in her book The Hidden Face of Eve where she describes her own circumcision at the age of six. She talks not only of the agony of the act but the shock of seeing her mother holding her down on the bathroom floor and realising that she was part of what she assumed was a gang of pirates who had stolen into her bedroom in the middle of the night to kidnap and kill her. Did she ever forgive her mother?
“Of course,” says Sadawi, her voice full of affection. “I loved my mother. She was also a victim. She thought what she was doing was good and that it was best for me.”
In part as a result of Sadaawi’s writing a law was passed last year to ban the practice, but she says that 97 per cent of women are still circumcised in Egypt. “You cannot eradicate such habits by law,” she says. “We need education.”
She feels strongly that her home country is going through a dark period in its history. “When I was growing up there was a Renaissance in Egypt. We wanted to get rid of the British and the king, to make all men and women equal. Now we are living in a dark period. There is no creativity, no culture, no agriculture and no industry. We are colonised by the United States, forced to import products to feed our people. At least British colonialism was clear and honest.”
Sadaawi is also working on a book called My Life Across the Ocean which is about her life in exile, on and off since 1993, where she spent most of her time teaching a university course entitled Creativity and Dissonance. “Many people think that when you go to America this is the dream; there is democracy, secularism, civilisation. They think the women there are free, liberated. They are not. Of course they may have more personal freedom than women in the Arab states have, but that doesn’t mean they are liberated.”
Sadaawi has more energy than most people I have met of half her age. Throughout the interview she gesticulates and moves around, she is expressive and dynamic. It is no surprise to me that she really wanted to be a dancer. “I wanted to move my body to the music in my head,” she laughs. “But of course as a little girl I wasn’t allowed to do what I wanted.”
She remembers her indignation at her brother being given privileges like freedom to go out, to ride a bicycle and even given better food than she was. “And he was lazy,” she exclaims. “He didn’t work at home or in school!”
She is inspired by stories like her own, by the world she sees around her. “Some people say ‘oh Shakespeare inspired me’, of course I enjoyed Shakespeare but I am inspired by LIFE, by the streets of Cairo, by the view from here of houses below like boxes where people are slaves. When I smell the sweat and the sewage, then I want to write. And I am also motivated by the pleasure I get from writing. I want to be happy and writing makes me happy. It makes me happier than love or sex or food. I can forget all that when I am writing.”
She suffers from a bad back, which is aggravated by sitting at her desk. “But when I am writing even if I am in physical pain I am happy. My body is collapsing but my mind is floating. That is the paradox of creativity.”
She has a very different attitude to ageing to her colleagues at US Universities she worked at. “’Nawal, why don’t you get a face lift?’ they ask me. ‘We are intellectuals but we can still use science to look young’, they say,” she laughs uproariously. “They all did plastic surgery. I want to be healthy, I want to be happy but I will never make an operation to hide my wrinkles! Also they go to parties with their shirts down too low, and they call this liberated. I tell them nakedness and veiling are two sides of the same coin. Both mean that women are just a body, either to be covered or to be naked.”
For a woman who has sold millions of books she lives in very humble surroundings. I ask her why. I had assumed her home would be in a villa somewhere along the Nile or maybe in the rich district of Heliopolis.
She smiles. “I am not a rich woman, despite all the books. I live among the poor people. I clean my own house. You see all these books?” she gestures to the bookshelves that line her sitting room come office. “I do not make any money from them. I have been robbed by the publishers. But my reward is when someone approaches me in India or in Norway or in the US and tells me that I changed their life with something I wrote. That is all I need.”
One of Sadaawi’s memoirs is called Walking through Fire. It is a phrase her mother used when describing how strong her daughter is. Does she feel her life has been difficult?
“Yes, I feel it has been very difficult,” she says. “But I am happy like a child, naïve like a child. I feel like I have an apparatus inside me that digests pain. This is a human capacity, but some people lose it, just like they lose their creativity. We are all born creative, but we lose it through education and fear. I haven’t lost it because I am fearless.”
So despite her many enemies, she feels safe in Cairo? She leans back in her chair and sighs. “I don’t feel safe anywhere. Life is not safe. Death and life are one to me, but I have no fear of death. Can you imagine life without death? It would be impossible. But I would prefer to be shot on the streets of Cairo because of my ideas than die of cancer in the US or Norway. Because we are all going to die and if I die here then at least my death will mean something.”

Unacustomed as I am to public speaking…

Tomorrow I have a terrifying task to perform. At 2pm I am to stand up in front of the WHOLE of Leo’s year at school and give a speech about what it’s like being a journalist. Nothing, not even my first appearance on Richard & Judy, or walking up the aisle, or watching Chelsea against Bayern in a penalty shoot-out has filled me with such fear.
I am terrified of letting him down. And I get the impression he is terrified too. “Two pm on Wednesday,” he keeps telling me. “Don’t forget.” This morning he even asked me what I’m going to wear. Good question. Do I go glam (trying too hard?), dressed down (slob mother), trendy (mutton mother) or sexy (slut mother)? It’s an utter no-win situation. And what to talk about?
Rupert’s idea was that I talk about the story I covered in 2005 about the world’s first face transplant performed on a woman who had her face mauled off by her pet dog while she was asleep. Methinks it might be just a tad too gory for 100 nine year olds. Can you imagine the questions? What happened to the dog being the first obvious one….
Anyway, here is my draft speech, advise and comments on this and outfit gratefully received:

RUGBY WORLD CUP

In 2003, the year a lot of you were born, I was in Beziers, covering the rugby world cup for the Sunday Times. Beziers is the heart of French rugby country, and I spent a lot of time sneaking into bars undercover to watch the games.

This wasn’t exactly what I’d had in mind when I decided aged around 10 that I wanted to be a foreign correspondent. I had envisaged myself in war zones, heroically rushing from battlefield to battlefield in a flak jacket and helmet.

Actually a flak jacket and helmet almost came in handy when I inadvertently shrieked GO JONNY as our hero Jonny Wilkinson scored yet another try against the French and the whole bar went silent.

I managed to survive the wrath of the French rugby crowd, filed the story to London and the next day it was on the front page, my first ever front page story and a defining moment for me because I felt I had achieved what I set out to do.

WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO BE A GOOD NEWS REPORTER? So what it does it take to be a good news reporter. It’s been said that the attributes required by a Fleet Street reporter are: a plausible manner, a little literary ambition and rat-like cunning. In old films journalists were always portrayed with trenchcoats and hats, but I always found a pen and notebook a bit more useful.

WHY I WANTED TO BE A JOURNALIST As I said I decided I wanted to be a journalist when I was a little girl. I was inspired by the Tintin books, the brave little blond man and his dog setting the world to rights. Like many journalists I did have a little literary ambition, I always wanted to write, and journalism seemed like a natural path towards that. I kept diaries, wrote short stories and read lots. When I went to university I worked on the student newspaper, eventually becoming editor of it. When I left university I looked around for that glamorous job in journalism.

EARLY CAREER My early career was not illustrious. It is a very competitive industry, and despite interviews for the Sunday Times and BBC graduate trainee schemes I found the only way in was through financial journalism.

I started my career at a dreary magazine called Trade Finance magazine. You may well ask what trade finance is; to this day I have no idea, and certainly no interest in it. But I learnt to report, to write, to meet deadlines and I also picked up that invaluable journalist’s tool of pretending to understand what’s going on when you really haven’t the foggiest.

GOOD ADVICE One of my first news editors said that you should treat every story you cover as if you’re a police investigator. Try to amass as much information as possible from as many sources as you can, and don’t always believe that everyone is telling you the truth.

I gather you have been learning about the five Ws: who, where, what, when, why. And of course my daughter’s favourite: whatever. They are a great tool for writing an intro. Make it powerful; get their attention, especially in the first paragraph. Keep it simple and to the point, tabloid press are often criticized but they are brilliant at conveying the maximum information in the minimum  amount of words in the clearest manner.

MOVE TO FRANCE Happily I moved to France and left the world of financial journalism behind. I’m not sure who was more relieved, they or I. Traditionally this would have been a very poor career move. Historically newspapers were based in Fleet Street on the edge of London’s financial district. The journalists were all based there and the printing presses were underneath and offices. CHANGES But then the newspapers moved out to cheaper locations and because of new technology you no longer had to be physically there with a typewriter and a piece of paper. Now in the world of skype, mobile phones and emails you can be anywhere you want to. Just last week I wrote a piece for the Daily Mail about a political scandal in France, from here.

The world of newspapers has changed in other ways too. As a business they are in decline with people preferring to read their news on-screen. At one time everyone in Britain bought a daily paper, nowadays few people bother. However this doesn’t mean there are no avenues for those of you who want to become reporters. The medium may have changed but the message remains the same. The need and desire to tell or to hear a story will never go away. Our ancestors sat around camp-fires telling tales of their hunting expeditions, today we tend to go on twitter or facebook to see what everyone’s up to. We’re all journalists now.

BEST JOB EVER Being a journalist is, I think, one of the best jobs you can have. You are constantly learning new things; you meet fascinating people, along with extremely famous and less fascinating ones such as Prince Andrew and Dannii Minogue, both of whom I have interviewed.

I think one of the most incredible women I ever met was the daughter of an author called Irene Nemirovsky who shot to fame a few years ago when her book became a global bestseller almost 50 years after her death. Her daughter, the woman I interviewed, had carried the unpublished manuscript with her in a suitcase along with her teddy bear as a child while escaping from the Nazis in occupied France. They had arrested her mother and sent her to Auschwitz, where she died. I was also lucky enough to meet such sporting superstars as Tom Daley, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

Nowadays I do much more writing of books, features and opinion pieces than pure reporting, although I would be happy to go back to it if someone needed me to. Maybe for the next rugby world cup?

Meanwhile, I would love to hear your questions about journalism, news reporting or anything at all…..

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012

50 Shades of Frustration

I used to say there is nothing as dangerous as a frustrated author. I should know, because I used to be one. I could barely stand to hear about someone who had had their book published, it would send me into a frenzy of jealousy and frustrated angst. Now that I am a published author though, I see another dangerous breed emerging. Or at least another kind of envy; best-seller envy. OK so I have had one best-seller (Two Lipsticks and a Lover), but best-seller envy comes when you see such publishing phenomena as 50 Shades of Grey overtaking you by millions and then being made into films and changing the life of the author in ways you can only sit and imagine.
Obviously I had to read it to see what all the fuss is about, and more importantly to see if I too could write such a successful book. A few days ago one kind reader compared my book Love in a Warm Climate to another one set here in France. “Her’s is chick-lit without the sex,” he said. “Yours is sex without the chick-lit.” So I figured I could up the ante so to speak and go for full-blown sex-lit next. Best-sellerdom beckoned.
I was amazed at just how bad the book is. And this is not best-seller-envy induced sour grapes talking. It is SO badly written. It reads like it’s written by a teenager, for a teenager. The main character keeps saying things like ‘Oh my‘ which drives me insane. Who the hell (especially aged around 20) says ‘oh my‘? And even more especially when they’re about to be tied up and whipped?
Added to which, she is so typically American I want to scream. She wants “more” from her relationship with the six-pack bearing, hung-like-a-mule, stunningly beautiful billionaire Christian Grey. She practically has a multi-orgasm every time she sees him, he buys her cars, clothes and first editions of classics. He flies her around in a helicopter, and he clearly adores her. But this is not enough for the young lady. She wants to know where the relationship is going, whether or not he loves her, will they have children etc etc. So she leaves him, and is utterly miserable. So is he. Great.
That is where part one ends and although I admit that the story is compelling in the sense that I do want to know what happens and exactly how he ended up so mad, I am not prepared to read part two because if I see one more ‘oh my‘ it might just tip me over the edge. But if you do know what happens, please feel free to tell me.
As to emulating the book to create my very own publishing sensation, well as far as I can see the key ingredients are a thwarted relationship and lots of sex. That shouldn’t be too difficult….
Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012.

What’s in a name?

Naming a book is in some ways a bit like naming a baby. There is no copyright on book titles, so rather like a child’s name, you can copy whatever name takes your fancy. It also has to suit your baby or book, and reflect a bit of its character, or content.
As regular readers will know, for my latest novel my publisher liked How to turn your husband into your lover. I couldn’t really say it without cringing, but could see the benefits of the sales it might generate. I would probably at least look twice at a book with that title. But what I wanted was something a bit more elegant. And less like a ‘How to’ book. There are so many possible great titles, I didn’t want to end up with something I didn’t love. So I looked to other titles for inspiration. Some of my favourite titles, in no particular order, are:
A Streetcar named Desire
The Devil Wears Prada
Like Water for Chocolate
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Pride and Prejudice
The Age of Innocence
The Postman always rings twice
So the task is to combine the intrigue and the subtlety of these, with sex. Because my publisher is adamant that we need sex in the title. Sex sells books. Although 40 Shades of Grey, which has now become the fastest selling book since Harry Potter has no sex in the title. Unless I am missing something. Lots of sex inside though apparently, not that I have read it yet. I have it on my ipad and keep meaning to, but just haven’t got round to it. Maybe if I really wanted to write a best-seller I should just write a book with lots of sex in it and not worry about the title at all?
Anyway what I have come up with is the following:
The Nostalgia Trap: How sex with an old boyfriend can get you into real trouble
Thoughts?

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012

Good Housekeeping column – December 2011

I have been writing a column for Good Housekeeping magazine here since December last year. Here is the first one.

This will be our fourth Christmas in Abu Dhabi, and I’m determined to get it right.
Last year we were almost there, but I fear the pink tree slightly
let us down. By the time I realised that you actually had to book a
month in advance for a real tree it was of course too late. We had
to make do with whatever was left at Lulu’s – a choice of gold or
pink. Pink it was; we haven’t gone totally native.
I feel increasingly stupid every year when I wake up somewhere in
mid-December and realise that Christmas is only a matter of days
away. I promise myself that next year I will do better. I will
become one of those annoying types who buy little gifts throughout the year and stash them away for the children’s stockings. And start freezing breadcrumbs for the bread sauce mid-October.
When I realise I have failed, yet again, I panic.
We have not made Christmas easy on ourselves. Quite apart from trying to meet people’s (read children’s) expectations when it comes
to presents, we have to cook an enormous lunch and decorate the house like a scene from A Christmas Carol. And because we have dragged our children away from their home countries, we feel
we have to do it all bigger and better than we ever did before.
In reality, no one is creating all this pressure, apart from our own slightly masochistic Christmas housewife alter-ego, who is silent all year round but surfaces with a vengeance over yule tide, like some shrill harpy, in coordinated red and green with ‘fun’ earrings.
By getting it right this year, I have decided I am going to ignore
her unhinged demands. I shall drag the pink Christmas tree out of
its box under the stairs (good recycling I’ll tell the family), put
on something black and elegant and take everyone for lunch at some gorgeous hotel on the beach. Let someone who is paid to do it make the bread sauce.
And with all the energy I have left over, I will drone on about the
true meaning of Christmas. That should shut them all up until it’s
all over again.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012

What next?

I know I only just finished the latest novel, but I am thinking about the next one. There are a few options I would love your thoughts on.
Option One: Ciao Bella in novel form, modelled on Bonjour Tristesse, obviously not the same as Ciao Bella, but with similar themes and of course the central character of my Dante-reading, opera-obsessed and womanising father.
Option Two: Another chick-lit, this time with a strong tennis theme. Central characters include Rafa and Roger types but they hate each other, think Jake the gypsy and Rupert Campbell-Black in Riders.
Option Three: A novel based here called The end of Mahara, which is a comment Olivia came up with while describing the coming-of-age of a friend of hers, meaning that for Mahara her carefree childhood days are over now she has to cover herself. Three central characters; one expat wife, one housemaid, and one Emirati whose lives somehow intertwine. Will probably also end up being chick-lit as any fiction I try to write tends to turn into chick-lit.
Or none of the above, suggestions welcome….

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012

Insomnia….again

There are many things you can do when you wake up in the middle of the night. You can lie there and try to get back to sleep. Sometimes that works, but not, as was the case with me just now, when there is a little person next to you who has just had a nightmare and keeps throwing her arms in your general direction while she sleeps.Or, as is also the case with me tonight, there are a million things going around in your head such as how to finish the novel, what to eat for dinner, where is above-mentioned little person’s science test and how best to deal with an extremely pesky work situation.
My friend Carla’s view on sleep is that if it doesn’t come naturally, you take drugs. I once took a sleeping pill. It was when my father was staying with us one Christmas. The next day I was like the walking dead.
“Why are you being even more stupid than usual?” he asked me. I told him about the pill. He flew into a rage such as I have never seen before. “Sleeping pills are for the mediocre,” he yelled. “You are a writer. If you can’t sleep, get up and write.”
So after an hour and a half of trying to get back to sleep I have decided to do just that. There is a novel to finish and an article to write.
And even if it doesn’t help my own insomnia, it may help someone else’s.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012

What should I write?

Two bits of news before I get on to the main topic of the day. One everyone in my book club HATED the AS Byatt book and no one had read it, bar one poor newbie who felt compelled to plough through it because it was her first time. The next book is one I have picked called Before I Go To Sleep. It is the debut novel of a man called SJ Watson, and a thriller (something I usually would never read) but really extremely original and clever. My only worry is that the other ladies will slate it, they are a tough crowd. Lucky for the woman who picked the Byatt book she’s already left the country to move back to the UK, I’m not sue she would have got out of there unscathed.

Some very good news now. I spoke to my father, who sounded so much better. It was so great to hear his old self (almost), his wit and intelligence coming through for the first time in months, it’s a minor miracle really, to have recovered to some extent at the age of 87 (it was his birthday last week). It was really lovely to talk to him and I hope to be able to see him in January, once ticket prices are sensible again.

The main topic of the day is writing. I found the AS Byatt unreadable, and wonder how she was able to keep going while writing it. I am at a bit of a standstill on my novel, I wouldn’t call it writer’s block, but for some reason, the final 20,000 words just aren’t flowing as easily as the first 60,000. I have always really enjoyed the process of writing, and I think that is the key to writing something someone wants to read. You need to be having fun, or it won’t be fun to read. I can’t imagine Ms Byatt was having fun when she wrote all those historical facts that she thought we needed for some reason, and they certainly weren’t fun to read.

At the moment, it doesn’t feel like fun. But I am hoping that this setback is in the main because I have had no time to get a rhythm going. I think writing is a bit like tennis. If you are playing against someone who stops you settling into your rhythm, you lose. I have had about three hours free in the past two weeks to write, so maybe it’s not surprising that I am find myself lacking in inspiration.

Soon I will be on holiday, which means I can be more focused. Having said that, the children will be on holiday too….But I will remember the two best bits of writing advice I was ever given. One by a friend called Jonathan Miller, who used to be Media Editor at the Sunday Times and (more significantly) is Olivia’s Godfather: “If it doesn’t write itself, it’s not worth writing.”

The second piece of advice is of course from my mentor, my dear father. I remember when he first told me to write a short story. I was about 13 years old.

“What should I write?” I asked him.

“Write the most extravagant thing that comes into your head,” he told me.

Which is what I will do….as soon as I have some time.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2011