In praise of Bond. James Bond

I haven’t managed to see Skyfall yet… though I very much want to as I am a big Daniel Craig fan, and I feel I owe something – some kind of loyalty, perhaps – to James Bond. Not so much to the films, perhaps, though it’s hard to separate out what the ongoing life of Bond owes to his various on-screen incarnations from the part played by the books. But it was to the books that I turned as a teenager – and here’s what I learned from them.

Growing up in an all-female household and going to an all-girls’ secondary school had the effect of making me hopelessly curious about men. But where was I to find out about these strange trouser-wearing creatures? When I got to 17, I finally discovered the answer, which was: down the pub. But till then, I had to make do with books. James Bond became a formative influence, a sort of ghostly proxy uncle, offering, or so I thought, a sneaky insight into what men were really like, and what they wanted.

So what do men really want? Nowadays, I would probably say: a quiet life, with suitable technological entertainments to hand, a comfy sofa and an amenable companion. (Same as women really, no?) But in the world according to Bond, men wanted danger: the lethal ski run, the underwater swim round the villain’s yacht with a Geiger counter in hand, sex with the villain’s girl.

Bond liked to gamble, and drive fast, and drink, and did not like to lose, or ever want to settle down: he feared boredom much more than death, and was not at all domesticated. He didn’t even believe in garaging his car, because fumbling round with garage doors slowed you down and broke your fingernails and, anyway, cars ought to be able to start in the cold.

‘What every man would like to be, and every woman wants’ 

The blurb on the back of one of the Bond books we had at home proclaimed, ‘James Bond is what every man would like to be, and what every woman would like between the sheets,’ or words to that effect. I suppose there’s a subtle, but important, distinction between what one wants (the sofa and a good book), and what one wants to be, or take to bed (the fantasy the book contains).

My attitude to Ian Fleming’s books is muddled up with the image projected by the Bond films. Back in the 80s, when I stayed up late in the run-up to Christmas, sitting close to the telly with the sound turned down low to watch whichever Bond was on that year, the films seemed exotic, glamorous, and, well – sexy. None of which was particularly British – and yet Bond was.

This was the era of Moonraker and Roger Moore, who played it all a little tongue in cheek, not that I was particularly aware of that. I remember the villain with the mouthful of silver teeth, a bit of crocodile-hopping, the soft, malevolent hands stroking a long-haired white cat, and, of course, the Bond girl who slept with Bond and then didn’t wake, because she’d been covered in gold. I remember, also, piranhas in the pool, and one of those classic masochistic scenes in which Bond is pinioned, spread-eagled and about to face damage to a crucial part of his anatomy, although in the end his manhood is preserved.

Even though the image of the books and the image of the films tend to blur, the books have a quite separate life of their own. Here are some glimpses of Bond and his world from the books that particularly stick in my memory (and I can only apologise if my memory has reinvented them):

  • Bond was kicked out of Eton at the age of 13 after being found in bed with a chambermaid.
  • Bond’s secretary, Miss Moneypenny, is helplessly in love with him.
  • Honeychile Ryder in Dr No is not in a bikini when she emerges from the sea. (She has on nothing much more than a belt and a knife.) Her nose has been broken and badly set, and she instinctively covers it up when she sees Bond.
  • There is then a scene involving the sucking of sea urchin spines out of someone’s foot, though whether it’s Honeychile or Bond doing the sucking I really can’t remember.
  • The opening of Diamonds are Forever: very short, something about a scorpion, no Bond in sight. Life is nasty, brutish and short, is the message.
  • Tiffany Case, the woman in Diamonds are Forever: tough, vulnerable, survivor… but a Bond who took to family life wouldn’t be Bond, so even though he falls properly in love with her, she has to be written out.
  • A scene in a health spa in which Bond engages in some rather brutal one-upmanship which leaves a fellow guest with third-degree burns.
  • Patricia Fearing, who was, I think, some kind of therapist at the spa, and ends up experiencing Bond on the back seat of her bubble car.
  • Somebody (perhaps Patricia Fearing? Or Mary Goodnight?) who impressed Bond as potentially more exciting than the other women she was with because she ordered a strawberry daiquiri rather than something non-alcoholic.
  • Bond turning down the option of an emergency suicide pill which could have been stashed in one of his teeth.
  • In The Man with the Golden Gun, Mary Goodnight’s arm smelled of Chanel no 5. Chanel no 5 has been my favourite perfume ever since.

A week in the life of Stop the Clock

launch of Stop the Clock
Me with the owners of Mostly Books

I’ve always fought shy of public speaking, but no longer! Just over a week ago, I gave a thank you speech to a lovely group of people at the launch of Stop the Clock. The launch was hosted by Mostly Books, a brilliant independent bookshop in my hometown.

It’s funny how you can end up feeling physically nervous even if, in your head, everything is hunky and dory. I couldn’t have wished for a warmer, more encouraging audience, and I knew exactly what I wanted to say, which was along the same lines as my last blog post. I wanted to thank everybody for coming, acknowledge the help and support I’d received both from the people present and from some who had been unable to make it, and let everybody get back to their wine. Yet, when it came to it, it was – not intimidating, exactly, but definitely a little tremble-inducing!

You can see some more pictures of the launch on my Facebook page at www.facebook.com/AlisonMercerwriter and on the Mostly Books blog.

Tip for handling speech nerves: kid yourself it doesn’t count!

A work friend googled nerves about public speaking  and sent me a good tip (it’s funny how google has become the first port of call when potential problems arise – google is the oracle). The tip was that it’s actually counterproductive to build up to something and steel your nerves and tell yourself how desperately important it is. Instead, if you kid yourself that the stakes are low and it really doesn’t matter, you’ll be much more relaxed and confident.

This reminded me of the advice we were given on hitting high notes back when I was a child singing in the South Berkshire Music Centre choir: you were meant to imagine yourself falling down onto the top notes like a cat landing on its feet, rather than straining up as if they were on a high shelf out of reach. I tried to remember this when I did my first ever radio interview at Radio Oxford on Bank Holiday Monday.

Sex on a Bank Holiday Monday… with a lion on the loose

As it was a public holiday, most people were off work when I went into Radio Oxford – I had to go through the car park to the back door to be let in. I’d never been in a local radio station before, and was reminded ever so slightly of a hospital – it had that functional, conscientious, public service feel, where things tend not to get chucked out for the sake of it, as long as they still work.

The green sofa I perched on while waiting for my slot could have been in a parents’ room off a children’s ward, and the big notice reminding staff to ask listeners to send in their pictures reminded me of the signs you get everywhere in hospital, exhorting everybody to go and wash their hands.

I had somehow managed to kid myself that the interview was going to be pre-recorded, and it wasn’t until I was sitting down at a little desk with a big green baize-covered microphone in front of me (there was a lot of green baize) and saying ‘Good afternoon’ that I allowed myself to realise I WAS NOW LIVE ON AIR! Actually, we had a nice chat, and it was all over very quickly.

And so I got to talk about sex via a public service broadcaster at lunchtime on a Bank Holiday Monday. Well, sort of. We chatted about 50 Shades and how the girls in my class at school didn’t think the family saga I wrote as a teenager had enough rude bits in it. I giggled quite a lot. You can hear my Radio Oxford interview here, for the time being anyway  – my bit kicks in at 1:07:25 (after Saturday Night Fever!) It’s about 10 mins.

The big story of the day was the lion on the loose in Essex, which turned out to be a big cat. I left the studio and found I had a very cheery text message of congratulation from my husband. Then I went home and ate a very large slice of caramel cake to celebrate.

What they’re saying about Stop the Clock

Here are some of the comments that have appeared in mainstream print media about Stop the Clock:

‘Mercer has a satirical eye which she puts to good effect in describing such cornerstones of middle-class life as private antenatal classes and bitchy newspaper columnists. A funny, promising debut’ Wendy Holden, Daily Mail

‘Effortlessly readable and sharply realistic, this is grown-up chick-lit at its very best’ Closer

‘Funny and moving, this is a fab debut from Alison Mercer’ new!

There have been some great amazon reviews, too, and some lovely blog reviews:

I also did a guest blog post on Shaz’s Book Blog which sets out my dream cast for a film adaptation of the book

And, on a slight tangent… here’s the Guardian article I wrote about birth scenes in fiction. (Birth does feature in Stop the Clock!)

I was particularly chuffed to hear about my friend’s mum who read Stop the Clock in six hours straight. Once they get started people seem to read it fast!

Happy first book birthday to Stop the Clock

Dreams don’t come true without a bit of outside help; someone else has to wave the magic wand and give you permission to go to the ball. My debut novel, Stop the Clock, is published on Thursday 16 August, a big day for me which wouldn’t be in the offing without the hard work and encouragement of numerous other people along the way.

The publication of Stop the Clock represents the culmination of more than three decades of wanting to be a writer, and an awful lot of pens, printer ink and paper. I’m very grateful to my agent and to my editor and the rest of the team at my publisher, Black Swan, for transforming my manuscript into the finished book that will hit the shelves on Thursday. It’s been one hell of a ride – now for the final fast downhill run!

None of it would have happened without the back-up of my husband, the poet and writer Ian Pindar, an editor par excellence who always has a cool head in an IT crisis. Ian has a sharp eye for a redundant word, and a disciplined attitude to work that I’ve tried to emulate. It’s always very reassuring to have him look over something before sending it out into the world.

He’s also a dab hand with a camera. He took the photo of me on this blog, which makes me look at least five years less tired than I really am.

A big thank you to my ideal readers

Ian was one of the book’s first readers, but there were others who helped to get it through the early stages too. Books that give advice about creative writing often talk about how, when you’re writing, you should imagine the ideal reader, the sympathetic audience that is receptive to what you have to say, and willing you to say it. It’s a bit like the scenes in the film The King’s Speech where George VI speaks directly to his speech therapist rather than to the terrifying masses. I was lucky to have just the right reader at each stage in the development of my book. They take pride of place in the acknowledgements.

Stop the Clock is a book about friendship, and I wouldn’t have been able to write it if it wasn’t for my friends, though I’m grateful that we haven’t had quite such a fraught time as Natalie, Lucy and Tina.  Thanks are due to my family too, and my children, without whom Stop the Clock would never have got started.

My experience of working on the book over the last three and a bit years has been bound up with what has been happening in my family, in particular my son’s diagnosis with autism. It’s been a strange, intense time, but while the future is always uncertain, I think we feel much better placed to face up to it now than we did a couple of years ago. So thank you to all the people who have cared for and taught him, and advised us on how to help him, and to our lovely, supportive local community.

I’m really looking forward to the launch of Stop the Clock in our home town week after next. Finally the time has come for the book to make its way into the world! I feel like a mother on a child’s first day at school, waiting at the gate, peering at the playground and realising that what happens next is out of her hands.

Part of parenting is letting go. So goodbye and good luck to Tina, Lucy and Natalie, the three main characters who originally existed only for me and a handful of others, and now are ready to tell their stories to anyone who wants to read them.

More tips for writers: how to get to the end

Here are some more tips for writers on how to get your first novel out. It’s not just about creativity and imagination – it’s also about stamina, bloody-mindedness and keeping on going. Inevitably you’ll have other demands on your time, so how do you fit it all in, and stay the course till you get to the finishing post?

It is quite normal to have to work for a living as well as write. James Ellroy was a golf caddy. Sylvia Plath did shorthand (for a bit). William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks while working the night shift at a power plant – at least, that’s what he said later. (Writers! You can’t believe a word they say!) You may not be able to crank out a masterpiece at quite such a breakneck pace – I certainly couldn’t – but you can definitely push out a first draft if you work most evenings over the course of a year. I wrote pretty much all of Stop the Clock between the hours of nine and midnight, when my children were in bed.

Don’t worry if what comes out to start with doesn’t look all that great. Write secure in the knowledge that you will re-write. A novel is infinitely perfectible. The words you scribble down on your notepad can be reworked, polished up, transformed into e-book or printed page – but only if you’ve set them down in the first place. You may find longhand is better to start with. A keyboard gives rise to the temptation to edit as you go along.

Take notes. All kinds of writing are useful for getting you in the habit: dry-as-dust research reports, accounts of fetes and conferences, long, crazy love letters – it’s all exercise of one kind or another. If you’re not ready to commit to a novel, try short stories, a diary, a blog, flash fiction, whatever. Keep pen and paper to hand, because when you’re in the habit of writing phrases will present themselves to you at odd times. Don’t lose them. Write them down as fast as you can.

Don’t believe the spiel about the enemies of promise. This was a list dreamed up by Cyril Connolly, and it included the pram in the hall and journalism. It’s a funny, well-written essay. That doesn’t mean it’s true.

It’s nobler to try to make something than to knock it – even if you fail. It is always, always harder to create something than to destroy it. Don’t let meanness or indifference put you off. The act of putting pen to paper, regardless of outcome, is what counts. And as Brendan Behan says in Borstal Boy, F**k the begrudgers.

Remember, as the screenwriter William Goldman says repeatedly in Adventures in the Screen Trade, nobody knows anything. Be prepared to listen to advice, especially if it comes from someone whose judgement you trust. However, when it comes to your work, others may be able to offer a view or a steer, but ultimately, you are the one in charge. You decide. You judge. You choose. As a novice writer, you are simultaneously without status and magnificently powerful.

When you put your shoulder to the stone, something magical happens: forces conspire to help you shift it. When I was a student I interviewed the polar explorer Ranulph Fiennes, and he said that when you commit to an expedition, however impossible it seems, things fall into place to get you on your way. That can happen with novels, too.

If you find it difficult to get started, try writing in bed. Like reading in bed, it’s a way of tricking yourself into thinking that you are resting and indulging yourself, and about to go to sleep any minute. It worked for Proust…

Carry on reading. But don’t force yourself to read books you think you ought to. Read whatever you like, and plenty of it. If you feel stoppered up, try a page-turner. I read the Twilight saga when I was writing Stop the Clock in the hope that the flow of it would rub off. Read books that are similar to the one you want to write and see how they’re put together. Borrow other people’s tricks and make them your own.

Keep going. Music can be useful to psyche you up and push you on, just as it is (I believe) for runners. Be stubborn and bloody-minded. You will be peculiarly pleased with yourself when you get to the end.

Here are some more tips on how to write a novel in next to no time.

Tips on how to write a novel in (next to) no time

Novels are time machines that take in hours from their writers and convert them into the ability to transport their readers elsewhere. They eat up evenings and weekends and whatever you throw at them. It’s amazing how long you can spend agonising over a couple of sentences. On the other hand, it’s equally surprising how much you can produce in just five minutes.

If you’ve got a job, and/or caring responsibilities, and want to write a novel but have no spare time, how are you ever going to fit it in? Part of the answer is sleight of hand. You need to kid yourself that it’s feasible until you’re so deep in that there’s no way you’re going to give up. You have to get over the hump.

Here are some tricks and ruses that will help to get you started and keep you going. The time your novel takes up is going to have to come out of somewhere, sadly; you’re never suddenly going to get a whole new load of hours in which to write it, unless a very wealthy and obliging patron comes along. So, what gives?

If there’s anything you routinely do that you don’t really like doing and would prefer not to bother with, why not cut back on it? In my case, that has meant embracing my inner domestic slut. The inner domestic goddess is no help at all on the writing front – we’re barely on speaking terms. And to paraphrase Rose Macaulay, better a house unkept than a life unlived (or a book unwritten).

I do feel ashamed of my writerly sluttishness, but console myself with the thought that Iris Murdoch apparently had a very messy house. And as for Quentin Crisp – he maintained that after the first five years, the dust didn’t get any worse.

You’re almost certainly going to have to cut some corners somewhere.

During your precious writing time, resist interruption. According to Anne Stevenson’s biography of Sylvia Plath, Bitter Fame, when Plath was a new mother living in Devon she tried to write in the morning and leave housework till the afternoon. However, she was liable to be interrupted by surprise visits from the local nurse and midwife, who would head on upstairs and find Plath working away, undressed, the bed unmade, and the chamber pot unemptied.

The Person from Porlock called on Coleridge and Kubla Khan ground to a halt. If you can avoid letting the Person from Porlock in, then do. It may be necessary to cultivate a bit of writerly ruthlessness.

Be very, very selective about what TV you watch. Consider abandoning all reality TV. The reality you invent will be much more compelling. Maybe this will mean some holes in your water cooler chat, but you’ll manage.

Get to know some other writers. If one or two of them are published, so much the better. It’s proof that it’s possible. I met Jenny Colgan socially back in the mid-90s and a few months later there were posters for her debut novel up all over town. It happens.

One way of meeting other writers is to do a creative writing course, selected according to the funds and time you have available. The Arvon Foundation runs week-long residential courses that don’t cost the earth and there are various online options. Some terrific writers have done creative writing courses. Many have not. It isn’t a pre-requisite.

Set yourself a deadline and make sure that someone else knows what it is. The carrot – publication, praise, renown, money – is far off, and likely to keep on getting jerked out of reach, so a stick is more likely to help you on your way. A deadline is an excellent stick.

When I was writing Stop the Clock, I set myself the target of writing a chapter a month, for twelve months, at the end of which I figured I’d have a novel, of sorts. I handed over each chapter on the due date each month to a colleague at work (in a brown envelope so no one else would pick it up and start reading.) I missed one month’s deadline, which was when my children had chicken pox. Just knowing someone was expecting me to deliver spurred me on.

Find yourself a reader, or readers, but choose with care. With an early draft, you don’t need detailed feedback. That can come later. In the meantime, while you’re trying to get the damn thing out, ‘I liked that bit’ will probably suffice.

You may not need much more than to know that someone has read it. You certainly won’t want detailed criticism. Hint: your ideal reader will probably share some of your tastes and values, but is unlikely, especially in the early days, to be your spouse.

You will also need at least some people around you who believe that what you are trying to do is worthwhile, even if you haven’t yet shown them what you’re writing. If your spouse or partner is one of these, count your lucky stars. However, you should beware of telling the world at large that you are writing a novel. Play your cards close to your chest until you’re really getting somewhere. This helps to create the psychological space and sense of freedom you need to make stuff up (which is what you need to do for writing to cease to seem like hard work, and become a pleasure).

More tips to follow…

My top seven novels about female friendship

IMG_3490
Friends, by my daughter

When I was writing Stop the Clock, I looked at lots of other books about groups of female friends that follow the outcomes of different attitudes to work and men and family life, and the decisions women make and how this affects their relationships with each other.

Here are seven novels about women’s lives and friendships that I’ve enjoyed hanging out with over the years.

  1. One I keep going back to was Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale, which I think is just terrific – funny, frank, sexy and moving (and full of relationships with men that don’t quite work out).
  2. The mother (grandmother?) of all these books about groups of women has got to be Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. OK, it’s about sisters, but still – different types of woman, different attitudes to how to be a woman, and to what sort of man and relationship to aspire to. I often think of the bit where Jo passes the manuscript of her book round, and people tell her to cut different bits out and it ends up getting thinner and thinner!
  3. Light a Penny Candle by Maeve Binchy. Her first. I still remember the cover, with bold red-headed Aisling and quiet blonde Elizabeth. That seems to be a common dynamic in these kind of stories – the go-for-it girl and the one who is more reserved but would secretly like to be wilder.
  4. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg. A gutsy tomboy, a shy, lady-like girl, and a bad bloke. Warm, but also dark and surprising: southern Gothic. Cuts between the Depression and the 80s.
  5. Lace by Shirley Conran. Meet Pagan, the Cornish aristo; Maxine, married to a French count; Judy, the American magazine publisher; and Kate, the writer. Epic romp across decades and different countries, with designer luggage. (I wrote a blog post recently on why Lace is a much better read than Fifty Shades of Grey.)
  6. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. Brilliant telling of the stories of four Chinese women who have come to live in the US and their American-born daughters.
  7. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells. Again, looks at both friendship and mother-daughter relationships (the main mother-daughter relationship is pretty damn fraught, and the friends – the Ya-Yas – intervene to try to repair the damage). There’s a great scene when the troubled mother welcomes in a woman selling cosmetics door-to-door, who is hopeless as a saleswoman but also desperate, having fallen on hard times, and the two of them restore each other’s self-belief: quintessentially feminine.

Friendship and falling out in Stop the Clock

Good times bond people together– I guess it’s the honeymoon principle. Bad times, too, especially if you help each other get through them.

With old friends – the friends you make at school, or university or college, or in your first job – the history that glues you together is a compound of both the fun stuff and the disasters, plus something else; you come to define each other. The friend who knew you back then as well as now, who has seen you change, really knows you; someone you just met only sees the person you appear to be today. But change can mean distance, too; how far can the bonds of friendship stretch before they break?

The three main characters in Stop the Clock, my debut novel, are close in their mid-twenties, but their lives are set to head in different directions. Lucy, married and a mum, has no desire to go back to work; Tina is ambitious and career-focused; Natalie just wants to settle down with her boyfriend, or thinks she does. By their mid-thirties, they have ended up in quite different positions as far as their love lives and careers are concerned – but is the picture about to change yet again?

Old friendships – like any long relationship – sometimes hit a rough patch. (I still feel bad about ruining my friend’s egg poaching pan that her grandmother gave her. What can I say – in an ideal world, nobody would ever let me near a cooker.)

Stop the Clock looks at what happens when there are tensions between friends, when the goodwill built up over the years is put to the test. Following what happens to the three friends was a way of dramatising the different kinds of lives that women lead, depending not just on our choices, but also on chance – the opportunities that come our way (or don’t, however much we wish they would).

The cover of Stop the Clock

Here’s the final cover of Stop the Clock, my debut novel, which is due to be published on August 16. Let the printing presses roll!

I really hope everybody likes it… I think it’s a beauty. You know that moment when you finally make it to the café, and get to sit down with your cappuccino and have a read? (For me it would probably be a latte, a chocolate brownie and The Fear Index by Robert Harris, which is what I’m reading at the moment.)

It’s just such a luxury: that little bit of time. That’s what this image makes me think of. Also, I like her pink nail varnish!

My other half tells me that in France, they have historically had a quite different attitude to the whole business of covers, and been quite high-minded and gone in for plain white with a title on – though apparently this is beginning to change. Personally, I think the cover is part of the fun of owning the book. Here’s a shortlist of five other covers I really like – you’ll probably remember them, because they’re all the sort that stick in your mind:

  1. Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding – the slightly sepia-tinted chick with the curls and the fag
  2. One Day by David Nicholls – so good! The silhouette of the lovers’ profiles
  3. Riders by Jilly Cooper – a model behind looking very fetching in white jodhpurs
  4. The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger – the red high heel turning into a devilish trident
  5. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières – anyone who was in London in the mid 90s will remember when this jolly blue-and-white cover, which looks like a naive painting, was absolutely everywhere on the Tube.

The cover of my other first novel, which I wrote when I was at primary school, has suffered a bit from the passage of time, but you can still just about make it out – here it is!

the cover of my other first novel