Monday, 20 December 2010

Deep snow in Camden Town

Last Saturday in the teeth of the worst blizzard I've ever seen in North London, I ventured out to meet my daughter in Camden Town. By the time I arrived ice crystals were falling out of the sky. Camden Lock right in the heart of the famous Stables Market was covered in snow and the water was beginning to freeze in the canal.
The lock dates back to the 18th century when horses pulled the barges along the tow path.

The market opened up in 1972 on the cobbled yards outside the old warehouses and has become world famous. We had a festive mulled wine from Santa to keep us warm.

The market underwent a huge facelift recently and now there are statutes of horses everywhere and of course suitably covered in snow after the raging Arctic blizzards.

The canal looked so amazing in the snow. We crossed over the steep old bridge which also dates back to the 18th century. There were groups of young people throwing snowballs to each other from bank to bank but I was concentrating on staying on my feet.

After a while we were so frozen we settled down in my favourite cafe right on the water and watched the ducks go by. I love turning over ideas for new stories with my daughter. She has an excellent nose for what works and so we sat and talked books and ideas for over an hour.

Then we walked past Marine Ices looking decidedly chilly and out of place in the snowy landscape. This is our fave family icecream parlour and I don't remember ever seeing it in the snow.

We parted company at the iconic Chalk Farm tube rounding its red tiles between two arterial roads between Hampstead and Swiss Cottage, one of the oldest unchanged tube stations in London.

When I got back to suburban Golders Green the garden looked like a scene from an Arctic forest. I huddled down inside for the rest of the day, overheating my computer with all the ideas and poems from my trip to icy Camden Town.

English garden snow

Without warning the ground is covered
Rear windscreen a white out, wipers icing up

David Bowie gives us Major Tom on Kiss FM
 - Ground Control would never cope with this.

Cars back up in hour-long jams
Kids grab snow from my bonnet

Impatient now I run down the window
Feel the slab of deepfreeze on my skin

I want to slide home, pull on thermals
Snow boots, ski gloves,

Flick the security lights
And moonwalk onto virgin lawn

copywrite : Miriam Halahmy 2010

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Mince Pies and Sweeney Todd

What do you do if your publisher invites you for mulled wine and mince pies, but their offices overlook the former shop of Sweeney Todd Demon Barber of Fleet Street?
Accept and vow not to touch the mince pies? Warn everyone else not to touch the pies? Pretend to eat a pie but secretly drop it behind the book displays?
Answers on a postcard please.

As many of you know, my great passion is History and so imagine my delight when my editor, the lovely Lucy Cuthew, at Meadowside Children's Books,  informed me that their offices off Fleet Street overlooked Sweeney Todd's barber shop. The pie shop was next door."We get tour groups down there all the time, " Lucy said as we looked down into the Hen and Chicken Court from the fourth floor windows. "They love it, snapping away like mad."

So of course when I returned last week for the Meadowside Christmas Party I took my camera.
Here's the entrance to the courtyard, off 186 Fleet Street. Spooky, isn't it? You can almost imagine Sweeney Todd hurrying down there to his next victim, saying a cheery hello to the pie man as they squeeze past each other, water dripping down the walls and mangy stray cats brushing against their legs. Gorgeous!

The gruesome site itself, in all it's Victorian glory ( or should that be gory?) Sweeney Todd's window is on the right hand side above the wheelie bin.  Imagine what the dastardly barber would have done with wheelie bins!
The courtyard has very deep cellars too and you can look down into them through huge iron grids. Very grim, like some deep medieval dungeon prison.

But fortunately the Meadowside offices are lovely and bright and there was a real surprise of a welcome when I finally reached the fourth floor ( toilets on the floor below.) "We've got something to show you," said Lucy with a grin and pulled me to a bookshelf display at the back of the room. And there is was! My novel, HIDDEN, in proper novel format! I was so excited.
Here I am with Lucy proudly showing off our hard work!

It was a lovely party. I saw some old friends, Lynne Chapman and Anne Rooney, from Facebook, SAS and SCWBI. Made some new friends and got a bit squiffy on the mulled wine. I even bravely ate half a mince pie and it was ok - promise. I had a lovely chat to the publisher, Simon Rosenheim who talked about how fiercely independent Meadowside is  and I said I felt really at home here. Its good to have a publisher who is 100% behind your ideas. I also talked to Catherine about foreign rights and New York Art Galleries and to Rupert about sales. Meadowside publishes over 40 titles a year and has an established reputation for good books. That feels the right place to be. 2011 is going to be a great year!

Monday, 6 December 2010

HIDDEN goes live with a great cover!

Here it is -  the cover to the first novel in my cycle of three novels set on Hayling Island.

Its been quite a journey, taking photos to send to the designer, Sarah Andrews, at Meadowside, looking at different ideas, but ultimately Sarah has come up with a wonderful image which truly represents my novel.

Perhaps the most important element for me that I hoped for in this cover was the colour blue. This is the colour I think of when I think of Hayling. It is the colour of the sky reflected in the sea and also in the pools left behind on the mudflats when the tide goes out.

Then my editor, Lucy Cuthew sent me the A.I. ( er, the what?)  It means Additional Information.
This what Lucy wrote about HIDDEN.

The AI also contained a bit about me. My daughter took the photo. I'm standing in front of a poster of Jean Genet!

So now I have a cover, a press release and a fully edited manuscript. What a wonderful way to end 2010.
Roll on 2011 and then I'll be in publication year.
Watch this space!

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

What do I do for the next four years?

For the past four years of my life I have been writing my Hayling Cycle of three novels. I'm not sure when it turned into a cycle, but sometime during the writing of the first novel, Hidden, I had a wonderful idea for a second novel. At that point I decided that two was too symmetrical and I had to write three. So sometime during 2006 the ideas for the three novels were born. The inspiration for the second novel was a minor character, Lindy, who I felt had an important story to tell. So Lindy became the major character in the second novel, Illegal. During the writing of the second novel, another character, Jess presented herself as having a lot more to say. Jess is the main character of the third novel, Stuffed. In this way my cycle was born, all set on Hayling Island and featuring a rotating cycle of characters.

I started writing fiction for children and young people quite by accident. I pitched to Cancerbackup when they put out a call in 2004 for a children's writer. I was a published author and poet by then and had also taught terminally ill children. When they asked for a sample of writing they really liked what I sent them.
Peppermint Ward came out in 2006 and has gone all round the world, helping children and their families understand a diagnosis of cancer. Its one of the publications I feel most proud of.
You can find out more about the book at this link.

But once I started writing for children it felt like a tap had turned on. I pitched a story to Tony Bradman for his anthology, Give me Shelter,Francis Lincoln 2007 and he loved my contribution, Samir Hakkim's Healthy Eating Diary. It was from this short story that the first novel in my Hayling Cycle, Hidden, grew.
 Samir arrives at Heathrow as an unaccompanied asylum seeking child and is taken into care. He writes his diary to try and understand what has happened to him. The anthology was shortlisted for the UKLA Award, 2008.
We meet Samir again in Hidden. He is four years older but still an outsider in England. He becomes friendly with Alix, an English girl. Together they discover an illegal immigrant washed up on a Hayling beach and hide him to save him from being deported.

Meanwhile Tony Bradman put together another anthology on climate change, Under the Weather Francis Lincoln, 2009 and took my story, Tommo and the Bike Train. I love writing short fiction and I love writing to a brief. And so it felt right to take breaks from the novels from time to time to have a go at something different. I was also still very much a wannabee, without an agent or a publisher for my Y.A. novels and so getting published in anthologies was hopefully a good way to get myself noticed.
Tony Bradman has told me that over 15 of his anthology authors have gone on to publish novels. How lucky we were to have the support of this generous and talented author.

In 2009 I was approached by the BBC. I had been recommended to them by Cancerbackup. They needed an author for a booklet to explain the switch over from analogue to digital TV. I also had to find an illustrator and had the good fortune to work with the talented, David O'Connell. This time I had to learn how to write comic style - a completely different way of writing a story. Our booklet has gone all round the UK helping people with special needs understand how to cope with the nationwide change to digital.

It has taken me four years to complete my Hayling Cycle. I have a great agent, Eve White and excellent publishers, Meadowside. I just have to plan what to do next, I suppose.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Your SCWBI workshop let me go wild!

I ran two writing workshops on last weekend's SCWBI Conference in Winchester and 53 people came, 17 in the morning and 36 in the afternoon!
So why did they come?
"It's great to do some writing after so much listening."
"We're always learning, aren't we?"
"Odd process writing isn't it?"
"Helped to shake the cobwebs off my pen and brain and get writing."

Martin ( here on the left) said something which struck me as so true. "We write under such constraints normally, focusing on the work in progress. Your workshop just let me go wild for a bit."

So what did we do over four hours on the Sunday, after a big party the night before and hours of networking, listening and taking notes on the Saturday?  Here is a taster with some great ideas for schools workshops.

GIVE YOUR PLOT A FACELIFT - Sunday morning session.
What if?   Step outside your comfort zone, let your imagination fly free and start 'what-iffing' - essential for helping to lift a sagging plot.
We did a writing exercise - What if the slipper fitted the second ugly sister?
That got everyone going - we got murder, alien transformation, humour and sheer disbelief. 
My idea was that Cinders would be relieved - "I didn't fancy that prince anyway, I want to marry Buttons."

Everyone wrote and wrote and wrote. Here is what Mo sent me -
"No, its my turn now," shrieked Gwendolyn and she pushed her older sister off the chair. She sat her bony bottom down and removed her own shoe. "Gimme that," she ordered the page as he knelt before her offering the delicate glass slipper. Cinderella watched from the shadows.
 Prince Insincerely Charming stood behind the page. He crossed his fingers behind his back and mumbled, "Please don't fit. Anyone but her." Then he decided to cross his toes as well and even his eyebrows to be sure.
Gwendolyn poked her big toe into the slipper and wedged in her foot. It wasn't budging. She took it off, spat in the shoe and stuck her foot back into it. It fit. "Just needed a bit of lubrication," she said.

Tina Lemon wrote this 
It fitted. Oh my God, it fitted. The girl looked at her feet, her eyes wide with surprise. The prince's eyes had also formed into a similar shape but it wasn't surprise that was displayed on his face - it was pure horror instead. He was kneeling down in front of this oddly-shaped girl, visibly shell-shocked. Slowly he looked up at this girl that was soon to be his wife.

Lovely contrasting pieces from these writers.


It was Mariam who pointed out that this would make a great workshop in schools.
And yes, any age group, from Year 1- Year 13, I think it would work brilliantly with all of them.
Let me know if you try it out and I'll put together another blog.
Two more ideas :
What if  - Baby Bear found Goldilocks on his computer and she says over his shoulder, "I've fixed the virus, you're back online BB."
What if - Shrek turned into a handsome Prince.


Phillipa Francis had some fun with dialogue.
'Do stand still child.'
'Your pardon, Mama.'
Georgina focused on the shell-backed sconce above the fireplace.Mama moved around the table putting pins in as she folded the torn hem.
'Wretched child - what possessed you to climb like a hoyden in your best dimity?'
"What a difference it makes," writes Phillipa, "if I put the dialogue in red. Fascinating."

Absolutely Phillipa - writing workshops are the place where you can give yourself permission to try out new things and GO WILD.

One of the things I love the most about running workshops is the time when I look round the room and everyone is writing and a wonderful silence descends over us. The quality of this silence which is a combination of work and a deep sense of peace reminds me of the libraries in the old days when the librarians ruled OK! and no-one ever spoke. For me that old library silence is only really recreated in the silence of a room full of focused writers. Extraordinary.


We had a lot of takers for this session. They kept coming and coming until we used up half the chairs in the lecture theatre. 

I like to use texts to demonstrate the points I make in a workshop. For this workshop I used two of my favourite writers - Morris Gleitzman  and Guy de Maupassant.
I also used some examples from my short story, Samir Hakkim's Healthy Eating Diary, in Give me Shelter, Francis Lincoln.

Using texts is the best way to show the craft and techniques of writing and helps to bring alive what can be very dry and dusty stuff otherwise. I would always use texts in  workshops in schools and of course with adults.

Action and dialogue are the keys to bringing your characters alive.
I used an extract from Two weeks with the Queen by Gleiztman to show dialogue, action, internal monologue and keeping your reader on their toes - the all important element of surprise. 
Every single line in your text must serve to take the plot forward. This includes every single element of your characters. Action and dialogue bring your characters alive much more acutely than pages of description.

Kathryn Evans wrote to me, "Thanks again for another inspiring workshop. I had a penny dropping moment during the session, there's something about your writing exercises, that safe and nurturing environment - it unblocks furred up writing arteries :O)"

How can you make sure you give everyone a chance to read out their work in a session of 36 participants?

It is very important to me that everyone who wants to read out and get some feedback has the chance to in my workshops. So fortunately  I had decided to focus on Pen Portraits in the huge afternoon session. As people would only have to write one sentence I was able to give everyone a chance to read out, making the session dynamic and enabling for all the writers.

I chose a pen portrait from Maupassant's wonderful story, 
'The Piece of String.'

All the aristocracy of the plough were eating at Mait'  Jourdain's, innkeeper and horse dealer, a sharp fellow who had made a great deal of money in his day.

The innkeeper only appears in these few lines and yet in our discussion we agreed that he had made his money from possible underhand ways, he was not wholly trustworthy and yet had a strong position in the community, commanded grudging respect, maybe even admiration from his peers.

Bringing alive the minor characters is just as important as enriching the major characters in our stories. 

I set the following writing exercise - Write a one sentence pen portrait of the man who sells Jack the beans ( from Jack and the Beanstalk.) We reminded each other of the story and then wrote. 
Here are some of the results.

The man's contorted body looked like a sack into which all his bones had been dumped in no particular order but his eyes glowed with certainty and a dark knowledge.
Christian Colussi.

The ancient man grinned, his golden tooth winking in the yellow lamplight as he pulled me into a shadowy corner and lifted his ragged sleeve, his gnarled hand unfurling, claw-like, to reveal the beans, gleaming like jewels in his sweaty palm. "They're magic," he whispered, his breath stale as five day old vomit.
Katie Dale.

The man saw the big, fact, juicy cow coming towards him like a large barrel of gold on four hooves, one of them with a rope around it held by a boy; his next victim.
Paolo Romeo.

"Thank you for a great workshop - I've ordered the Morris Gleitzman," wrote Paolo.

When the man spoke a ragged line of blackened stumps appeared in his mouth and Jack stood back to avoid the fetid smell of swamp gas.
Jo Franklin.
Beak nosed and leather skinned, the old man's eyes were everywhere but on Jack.
Kathryn Evans
Jack saw a patchwork of a man. His arms whirred like a windmill and his eyes glimmered like spells.
Phillipa Francis
His gaze reached out and pulled Jack towards him, every detail of the boy grasped in those strong blue eyes and hoarded inside his shaven skull.
Benjamin Scott
The man's pig-eyes glinted and pushing his hat back with blackened forefinger he beamed a gap-toothed smile at the approaching boy.
Nicky Schmidt

PEN PORTRAITS WOULD MAKE A GREAT WORKSHOP TO TAKE INTO SCHOOLS and using a story and characters that everyone is familiar with gives everyone the same starting point.

"It always amuses me," said Julienne Durber, "how so many people say they can't write under pressure and then come out with some really vibrant stuff."

It was great to work with so many talented SCWBI writers and it is good to see that the future of children's fiction is in such safe hands. HAPPY WRITING EVERYONE.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Painting and poetry in Highgate.

It was such a cold week in October when I came across the Chewing Gum Artist, Ben Wilson, in Highgate. I'd just finished running a workshop at the Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution (HLSI), one of the oldest independent libraries in London. HLSI is a thriving cultural centre on Pond Square with around a thousand members. It has a wonderful library with over 25,000 books, as well as many old prints and documents regularly consulted by scholars. One of its rooms, the Colderidge Room, is dedicated to the great poet who lived the last part of his life in The Grove, a few minutes walk from the square.I have been leading writing workshops at HLSI for several years.

So I was delighted to see Ben working on one of his wonderful miniature paintings outside our door.
Ben Wilson has become a familiar figure on the streets of London in his one man campaign to draw attention to the quantity of gum spat out on our pavements. He believes that the gum is a symbol of our consumer society. "People have too much of everything today and so don't take care of the environment," says Ben.
I have blogged about Ben in a previous post when I met him outside the Royal Academy.

"Will you do a painting for me?" I asked Ben.
"Of course," he said. He handed me the notebook he always carries with him and asked me to draw out what I wanted. But of course, I'm a writer, so I needed words. I told Ben how Coleridge and Keats had famously met in Highgate and shaken hands. Afterwards Coleridge had remarked that Keats "was not long for this world." Had he felt the sickness in Keats' grip? Keats died at the age of 25 from TB. Even Coleridge with his heart problems and addiction to laudanum did better than that, dying in Highgate at the age of 62.
How could we fit all of this onto a piece of chewing gum a bit bigger than a ten pence piece?

"No problem," came Ben's cheery reply.Spoken like a true artist.
First of all he took a picture of myself and fellow writer, Judi Sissons, shaking hands.
Then we agreed on all the wording, including Coleridge, Keats, Highgate, HLSI, my name and whatever else Ben could fit on.
We agreed that Ben would ring me on the morning he started the painting so that I could come along and see the finished product.
I went home on the bus thinking, This is madness, there's no way he'll fit all that plus the handshake onto a piece of flattened gum.
In fact I rang him from the bus and said, "Maybe leave out Coleridge and Keats."
"Fine," he said, "let's see how it goes."
But I needn't have worried.
Ben Wilson is a tremendously talented miniature artist and the final product was absolutely wonderful.

These pictures give an idea of the scale of the work. 
What a wonderful celebration of writing in Highgate.

Ben takes care of his paintings, returning to them over the weeks to see how they are surviving. Kids come up to him and ask him to do their graffiti tags. He enjoys commissions and accepts donations. It can take Ben two hours to complete a painting, lying on the freezing cold pavements of London. He lies so close to the kerb he was even hit by a bus once.
I feel enormously privileged that I have featured in a painting by the Chewing Gum Artist.
And here is the link to the article in the Hampstead and Highgate newspaper.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Poetry, New York and Ground Zero 2010

We went to New York this summer to stay with my husband's brother, the sculptor Oded Halahmy. Oded has a loft in SoHo. In the past decade he has set up The Pomegranate Gallery and his Foundation for Art, promoting peace across the Middle East. Oded and all of his family were born in Baghdad and went into exile with almost the entire Jewish community in 1950. But Oded had never forgotten his roots. His gallery provides a venue for artists from Iraq, Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East

The main piece above and the sculpture in the foreground are Oded's more recent work, expressing his desire for peace in Iraq and protesting against plans to split the country apart.

This is UNTITLED, 2003-05, collage on book cover, by Qasim Sabti, a Baghdad artist, who rescued damaged books from the Academy of Fine Art after the lootings in the Iraq war. Sabti collected the covers of the ruined books and worked on them to create his collages. "These books challenged me to bring them back to life from their graveyard floor," says Sabti. "These works of art are my attempt to gain victory over the destruction surrounding us in Baghdad."
We have one of these wonderful collages in our London home, a piece of Baghdad  from where my children's father was born on the eastern side of the Tigris river.  The Babylonian Jews were exiled from Israel 2000 years ago and were the oldest Jewish community in the diaspora. 

As soon as we arrived Oded announced we were going to Smalls in Greenwich Village to read our poetry! Fortunately he had copies of my collection, Cutting Pomegranate, in his loft.   Smalls is one of the oldest venues for jazz and poetry in New York and they loved my English accent!
This is the second time I have read my poetry in New York. The first time was at Oded's major retrospective in 2003. I read a poem about his life and work and it was translated into Hebrew this year and published in a literary magazine in Jerusalem.

We were also in New York at the time of the US Open. I've blogged about how I find the perseverance of our great tennis players an inspiration in the marathon of writing a novel.We went to the grounds on Open Sunday and had the amazing good luck to see Jimmy Connors and John MacEnroe warming up.

The temperatures that week rose to 110F but even though we nearly died we had tickets to see Nadal play his opening game. He was stunning. Come on Rafa!

I have been visiting New York since 1976, before I met my husband and his large and entertaining family.   I always rode the Staten Island ferry from the bottom of Manhatten Island, past the Statue of Liberty. I have written poems about my visits to New York which have been published in magazines and my own collections. One of the poems ( see below) was commended by Fleur Adcock in a poetry competition.

Riding the ferry always gave the best view of the 'apple' effect of New York and also of the Twin Towers before 9/11. In 1999 I took both my children to the top of the Towers to the outdoors viewing platform. It was spectacular.
In 9/11 Oded watched the Towers fall from the windows of his loft. The dust reached his street. He had many friends who ran to his home to take shelter and stay over.

I returned to New York in 2002, one year later, on the day they stopped all searches in the ruins. The city was quiet, subdued. My taxi driver told me how he had been near Ground Zero on that dreadful day. "Ain't something I'm gonna ever forget," he said quietly. When I rode the ferry and looked back it was like there was a huge bruise in the sky in the gap where the Towers had once stood.

The Big Apple
one year later

Silver layers of the Chrysler building
glint beneath a May blue sky
edged with cirrus, the ferry engine burrs.
We lean on the end chain

yards from skimming water
fix our eyes on the gap.
New Yorkers under siege;
Check your mobile, don’t step on cracks.

A maggot wired for mayhem
blew its cover,  sprawled its belly
twenty blocks over pretzel stands
subway booths, ten thousand panes of glass.

You say, ‘My friend got out, 85th floor
her dad escaped the Nazis
they don’t give in so easy.’
I gulp sea air; feel brick dust in my lungs.

At Ground Zero strings of paper cranes
dangle from church rails.
Each Japanese schoolchild
folded one hundred and fifty
for peace.

But Ground Zero is changing. New towers and a memorial centre are being built. And the mosque? The mayor stated in the New York Times the week that we were there, "It wasn't Muslims who brought down the Towers, it was Al Qaida."

Of course no trip to New York would be complete without some writing time in a coffee bar. This was favourite place, Aroma, corner of Green Street and  Houston. ( Gosh, I even sound New Yorkan.)

And this is my baristo - Sergio, originally from Mexico City. He's been in NY for seven years, but he's quite homesick. Hopefully he'll go back and open his own coffee bar one day.

Another of our favourite places to hang out is The Olive Tree on McDougal Street. Its right next door to Cafe Wha where Dylan played in the 60s. The Olive Tree shows Chaplin films on a continuous loop and they have slates for table tops and pots of chalk. Artists go there to draw. 

But I'm a poet so I dashed off a few lines.

New York New York. Truly a city which never sleeps. 

Roller boot disco dancing in Washington Square.

The view from Oded's fire escape, 5.00am on a hot morning.

The West Village where all the writers used to hang out.