Julia’s Diary

Monday 7th April 2003

—07/04/2003

I just went for a hospital appointment with Doctor Verril. This was to get the results of my scan. I wasn’t looking forward to it, as in my experience results are usually bad. Also there’s no point getting worked up, because the results might not be there, so I am very good at entering a dreamlike state when I go into the RVI. I read an article about Monica Lewinksky. The waiting room was eerily empty and the nurses were twittering and giggling in the corridor. The atmosphere was like a girls boarding school at half term. However Doctor Verril was there and we got called in quite swiftly. He read out the results which showed no sign of any mestatises (probably spelt wrong) at all. It’s as if the cancer has dried up. There is a bit of fluid in my pleural cavities, but not enough to worry about. I asked him why and he said it could be anything. Still, good news. It means that I don’t have to have any more treatment for a while. I believe that this remission is due to the combination of acupuncture, Doris the healer, and Doctor Verril, and me. Together I think we are a formidable team.

I am going off on another retreat this week to work on the new book. It’s forming in my head all the time. I can’t stop thinking about it. I keep turning over ideas about Northern Magic Realism too. Last night I went to listen to David Almond read at The Blue Room…his work inhabits a childlike world where the imagination interweaves with reality. I’m interested in that place, where truth and lies mix up together. I love his work. I just read (thanks Joanne) A True Story Based On Lies, a short Mexican novel by an author whose name I’ve temporarily forgotten. Her work inhabits the same territory.

I think this new novel will take me to South America!

Thursday 3rd April 2003

—03/04/2003

I’m back from Manchester where we were recording the five women’s hour plays. It all went really smoothly, with actors who seemed capable of using their voices to create the most subtle nuances in the text. I sat in the studio next to the producer, Sue Roberts. I love this producer. She has such a clear ear for things and everyone around her feels relaxed. Other people are sitting doing timings and tapping away at computers. It’s all very efficient. Every so often Sue says something like, what do you think about changing this AND to BUT? The main thing is getting the plays the right length, and the other thing I needed to do was cut bits when they were too long, which nearly all of them were. Some of the plays are adapted from THE LAST POST which was a stage play I wrote last year. The actors who were in the stage version and the radio version had to stop acting so much. Radio is so intimate. You hardly need to put any expression into a voice to show anger,desire or whatever. Two of the plays were completely new, and I was most anxious about them as I hadn’t heard them being read. Thank god they seemed to work ok though. The plays are broadcast everyday from 19th May.

You’ll be glad to know the rat has gone. Everything is back to normal, if it ever is really normal. The rat’s corpse is in a shoe box in the front garden, as I want to show the rat catcher that we’ve caught it. It turned up dead, you’ll be glad to hear. Our cat dragged it about pretending that it had killed it, but actually it was the poison. But what a drama that was!

I went to see the film Frida last week. I enjoyed it alot. The clothes are beautiful, and I liked the way the film looked at her life and illness. Actually I found it quite

inspiring. It made me feel like being adventurous !

I am about to get really immersed in the new book. I have a story now, but the characters are still a bit misty and vague, like people I don’t really know yet.

Thursday 27th March

—27/03/2003

I’m working on a new novel now. I can’t talk about the details incase I confuse myself. It’s like starting a long journey..inventing the characters who I will have to travel with, and making an inventory of useful things to take with me, trying not to fall into the traps of other novels. Most important is to give ones characters motivation, because if you don’t the whole thing collapses by page 50. Also to decide what one wants the reader to worry about ie the hook. Then to uncover the language and tone of the novel, which is perhaps the most difficult thing of all.

Exciting though…like exploring a new country and working out how to live there!

The other thing that has happened recently is that we’ve had a rat in the house. This has caused unimaginable disorder and panic. Ratty bites through pipes and wires, and has ruined the cooker. He’s made nests out of dusters and chocolate wrappers. It is a very clever rat, but not clever enough to LEAVE now we’re onto it. Alan the rat catcher comes round regularly with his buckets of poison in a blue hold all. He says things like…it could have up to ten babies…or, there’s nothing like the smell of a dead rat next to a heating pipe….he’s put down lots of red bowls filled with blue pellets. Today he is putting down traps, but Ratty keeps going. It has eaten whole boxes of chocolates, and emptied pans of potatoes. We no longer eat at home. It’s crazy. I keep telling people I’m having problems with a rat, and they mis-hear me and think I’m saying ‘I’m having problems with Iraq’ !

Thanks to everyone who recommended novels. Perhaps you can give me some tips about getting rid of rats!

Friday 21st March 2003

—21/03/2003

I’ve reached the end of the whooping period and I am back into mt settled routine. It seems to me it’s got more settled since I won the award. It’s a very odd sensation to know that I’ll have a wage in two years time. I feel calm and purposeful! How long will this last, I wonder? I am just finishing my short plays for Women’s Hour, and we record them at the beginning of April in Manchester. I am looking forward to being in those studios again and working with the producer Sue Roberts, who is fantastic. Then, when those are done I must concentrate on the new book, which at this point is full of delightful possibilities, and is of course, staggeringly brilliant..ha ha.

Lately I’ve been asked to make all kinds of comments about books in the press…my top ten North Books…under rated and over rated books….books that leave me cold…and ones that I would take to a desert island. It’s very difficult to choose ones favourites….for one thing it changes all the time. I agonised over the top ten, as there are so many writers here in the North East..if you pick up a stone they all scuttle out. I am always discovering work I enjoy, or else suddenly understanding work that I hadn’t connected with before. And if I don’t like a book then I usually give up and stop reading it, so how can you criticise something you haven’t read properly?

I am reading Ann Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist at the moment. Actually, when I got back from South Africa I felt a bit stuck, and couldn’t think what to read next. I ploughed through Mandela’s autobiography which he wrote on Robben Island. For seven years he wasn’t allowed a pen! Still, he got to end of it. It was interesting to read the book so soon after visiting the prison, though it feels quite formal as a book…like he is, I suppose.

After I finished it, I couldn’t think what to read next. I hate that with reading…when you suddenly find yourself in a cul de sac. You know there are a million fantastic books waiting to be read, but you can’t find the right one. My solution to this problem is to return to something classic. Tyler’s novel are more or less perfect as far as I’m concerned.

If anyone out there is reading this please recommend a novel for me to read next. Tell me why it’s good! I don’t like violence, too much small descriptive print, too many facts, or books that set out to be funny. I love novels that take me to a new landscape…books like Cold Mountain (Charles Frazier) and Postcards (Annie Proulx) Under The Skin (Michael Faber) and books that introduce me to characters who I would never meet in the normal run of things.

It’s a beautiful Spring Day. Everything would be fine if they weren’t dropping bombs on Bagdad. My daughters are very politically active in the anti war campaign, and they are shocked that the war still goes ahead despite all their protests. I think the new generation will be shaped by these awful events. I was thinking about those caves where Bin Laden might still be hanging out…perhaps Saddam will end up there…perhaps all the baddies will end up living underground, bumping into each other at night. Also, someone said the other night, Tony Blair looks more and more like a wolf.

Wednesday 12th March

—12/03/2003

Whooohooo! I’m feeling very giddy and excited after receiving my Northern Rock Writer’s Award last night. It was a really lovely night. There was champagne and chocolates,and purple flower arrangements and not too many speeches. There were several writers receiving awards, giving them time to write, or acknowledging potential. I think the approval is easily as important as the money. Writing can be so lonely, and often you don’t really know if it’s any good or not. And even if you do write something good, you’re never sure the next thing won’t be crap. So these awards are like little surges of joy and affirmation for us insecure writers. I was very pleased to see all kinds of people winning things….writers who have spent years going to workshops and redrafting novels,like Diane Simpson , and writers who are just beginning, like the brilliant young poet Emma McGordon who read a riveting poem last night. And then there’s creative geniuses like the novelist John Murray, who published my first collection of stories Bloodlines when he was the editor of Panurge Press. John lives in Cumbria and his novel Jazz etc has just come out. There’s hardworking poets like Bob Beagrie and Maureen Almond who work their socks off doing readings and workshops and making literature LIVE. And there’s new novelists who are trying to get there work out there, like the talented Avril Joy. Everyone who got a prize deserved it!

It was all terribly heartening. David Almond, who was presenting prizes said how lucky we were to be living in the North of England. I think we have a rare network of creative people here. Writers tend to know each other and to be very supportive to one another. I must have known almost all the writers who were there last night. We are lucky that there is enough to share, and I hope that most writers feel supported and included even if they didn’t win this time.

My award is overwhelmingly generous. It’s like being given a wage to be yourself…it’s a kind of fantasy that never usually happens. Anne Stevenson, the poet who won the award last year said the difference was entirely psychological. She was able to bask ! Although most things I do are not for money, primarily, the award will give me the ability to stand back and look at the big picture. I have not had a regular wage since 1985! Anyway, what a happy thing to happen! Maybe I’ve died and gone to heaven!

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