Crossing Cultures and an Author Panel

Author panel participants

Earlier this month a publisher invited me to chair an Author Panel. There were four of them, all just publishing that difficult second novel. We were to meet at Waterstone’s Piccadilly and they would discuss Love and Romance Across Cultures. Their own experience and writing gave them the basic material. It sounded a blast. But I havered…

no time for author panelThe trouble was that I had not read any of the relevant books. Moreover the date was imminent and I was writing at white heat myself. OK, I’d chaired more than one author panel in my time and these books all identified as romantic, in one way or another.  I did know a bit about romantic fiction over the centuries. But was it enough? AAARGH!

I needn’t have worried. The event was a revelation – from so many aspects that I’m still counting up what it taught me. The authors and their books were by turns emotional, witty, and insightful. And often surprising.

The Publisher and the Author Panel

Actually, Jacaranda, the publisher who invited me, only had one of the four author panel on their list. Their commitment to the event, however, was total. And I got terrific briefing from Jazzmine Breary, their digital and publicity manager. Real saved-my-bacon briefing, I mean. Ace stuff.

author panel sponsor

Valerie Brandes of Jacaranda Books

Based in Southwark, Jacaranda were founded by Valerie Brandes, ex Profile Books, to publish the kind of books she wanted to read but was having trouble finding.

Works focusing on Africa and the Caribbean interest them particularly but their list embraces a wide range of history and issues affecting ethnic minorities, women, and young people. And they’ve welcomed a witty and grown-up love story, too.

Author Ola Awonubi

author Ola's bookOla is an award-winning writer with very strong emotional ties both to the UK and Nigeria, where she returned with her family and lived from the age of 10 to her mid 20s. Her first novel, Love’s Persuasion ,was published by Ankara Press, the Romance imprint of Cassava Republic in December 2014. Her second book by Ankara Press Love Me Unconditionally has been out since Valentines Day this year.

She read from Love’s Persuasion –  the Austenian title is not chance – and revealed an intriguing story. She structured it around the assumptions and conventions of Nigeria, and these heighten the impact of those universal constituents of a true love story – angst, uncertainty, pain and, above all, emotional fulfilment. Went straight onto my To Read list.

Author Colette Dartford

author Colette's bookColette’s insight into cross-cultural relationships came from living in California where, lacking the necessary green card to work, she took to study (Viticulture and Enology, a  woman after my own heart!) and wrote her first book, Learning to Speak American.

She, too, read from her first book, and introduced it by saying that the disconnect between American and British mores heightened her heroine’s sense of isolation. Her delivery of the tense, evocative scene moved her audience to silence and then applause.

In her second novel, An Unsuitable Marriage, her crises stress a family to breaking point. Out now.


Author Ayisha Malik

author Ayisha's bookAyisha Malik’s second novel is a sequel. She pitched them both as the Muslim Bridget Jones and her publishers agreed. Spot on, from what I can see. Their cross-cultural aspects are straight out of the heroine’s 21st century designer baggage – metropolitan survival versus traditional family values. Her heroine Sofia Khan is a hoot, too, as well as devout – she throws her knickers over the air conditioner only after marriage. The audience for the author panel loved it!

Sofia Khan is Not Obliged (Twenty7), was a WH Smith Fresh Talent pick in 2016 and has been optioned for TV. The Other Half of Happiness (Zaffre), is out April 2017. Incidentally, Ayisha is also the ghost writer for Great British Bake Off winner, Nadiya Hussain’s book, The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters (Harlequin).

Author Frances Mensah Williams

Author Frances's bookJacaranda’s own author, Frances Mensah Williams, moved to the UK from Ghana with her family aged 6. She’s not only an author (both fiction and non-fiction), but CEO of Interims for Development Ltd and the Publisher of ReConnect

In From Pasta to Pigfoot heroine, Faye, is a lively problem-solver with input from friends and family which is not always constructive. Like so many of the best love stories, this is also about the heroine finding herself. Faye’s confidence and judgement matures while she explores her Ghanaian heritage, her family, the beach, the shops, the history, from the middle class to a simple village. It is full of laugh-out-loud moments, kindness and truth.

The sequel, delightfully, is called From Pasta to Pigfoot, Second Helpings and is out now.

What Crosses Cultures? Author Panel Conclusions

As so often happens, the audience had more excellent questions than we really had time for. (OK, the whole session interested me so much that I lost track of time. My bad.) Two things stay with me:  the authors all agreed that none of them could think about whether they might upset the more traditional part of their audience while they were actually writing the book. “You just have to close your eyes and go for it,” said one. “Your characters drive you,” said another. But they – and I – all admitted that, once we’d finished a book, what really made us writhe was the thought: my mother’s going to be reading this. 

Oh, and the hunk emerging from the sea is pretty much a universal fantasy.


Regency Gowns: Who Would be a Seamstress?

white gowns worn by Bennet sisters in BBC 1995 Pride & Prejudice

BBC’s 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice

Regency gowns are familiar to anyone who has ever watched a Jane Austen adaptation on TV or film. We expect to see ladies floating around in high-waisted dresses, probably made of fine white muslin. We expect to see large quantities of bosom on display. But from our modern perspective of mass-produced clothing and home sewing machines, we rarely think about how these supposedly simple Regency garments were made.

By female hand and eye. Every last cut and stitch.

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dedicated to the one I love

Dedicating to the One You Love – or Are You?


Trumpets dedicating

Dedicating a book to someone is powerful. It’s an announcement with trumpets.

We’ve all read the thanks that go on for several pages. They embrace everyone from the author’s family, agent and editor, to anyone who gave them help with research or did the typing.

Justified? Probably. Sincere? Mostly. But a dedication? No. Continue reading

The Writer’s Pet: Who is Joanna’s Boon Companion?

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Suspend disbelief? Unancounced ghost

Disbelief and Our Willingness to Suspend it

Coleridge author of Suspension of Disbelief It was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he of Ancient Mariner fame, who coined the phrase “suspension of disbelief” in 1817 in his Biographia Literaria or biographical sketches of my literary life and opinions. He did so referring to his contribution, more than twenty years earlier, to  the Lyrical Ballads. Published in 1798, these are generally taken to mark the start of the romantic movement in English literature. William Wordsworth wrote most of them, of course.

Suspending Disbelief to Embrace Marvels

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Buffy, Her Librarian, Fellow Feeling and a Little Love

Buffy's Librarian 20th AnniversaryOn the 20th anniversary of Buffy, I want to celebrate the character who really got to me from the series — Buffy’s Librarian.

I’ve been tripping over fans’ favourite moments, measured academic evaluations, quotations, issues, the sheer energy of the fantasy, in the most unlikely places. Continue reading

Female servants: overworked and underpaid?

female servant in Regency costume

A Regency housemaid

Most female servants had a pretty tough life over the centuries. They worked long hours at backbreaking menial tasks, they weren’t paid very much and they had little or no time off.

What’s more, they were often at the mercy of predatory men — employers or other servants. And if they fell pregnant as a result? It was their own fault, their own wickedness — of course! — and they would often end up in the gutter. Continue reading

Footmen: the Curse of Manly Calves in Silk Stockings

Male servants conveyed the right image

In the Georgian and Regency periods, higher social standing was demonstrated by having more and more male servants, like footmen. If they wore livery, so much the better. If they had little to do, employers did not care  Ostentation was all.

one of footmenIn 1777, Lord North (often called “the Prime Minister who lost America”) proposed to tax male servants at a guinea a man to help pay for the American wars. He reckoned that some 100,000 menservants were kept for purposes of “luxury and ostentation”. (The tax was increased in 1785 and not completely repealed until 1889. You can read more about it in an extensive article on The Regency Redingote.)

The cost of keeping bewigged footmen increased again in 1795 when the tax on powdered hair began to be enforced, at a guinea a head. Opponents of the then Prime Minister, William Pitt, stopped using powder themselves. They began to apply the term “guinea-pigs” to those gentlemen who still powdered their hair, and so paid the guinea in tax. Continue reading

That Unique Moment – Making a Story Special

That unique moment — we all know what it is when we come across it in a book or a movie, an opera. We recognise it the moment we see it.

smell evokes memoryAlthough feel it would probably be a better word. And sometimes we don’t even realise what it was until we’re describing the story to someone else.

Lots of people try to analyse it. But essentially, it’s visceral. More like a fleeting scent or a snatch of music than anything we can explain. Continue reading

Servants on the Page: the Downton Conundrum

Downton Abbey
 — and Upstairs, Downstairs before that — can be a bit of a curse for writers. Why? Because both show us servants, below stairs, who are human and empathetic. Because they show us relationships between upstairs and downstairs that seem respectful on both sides, even cosy. And because they aren’t always true to history.

Don’t believe me? Then let’s turn to Mrs Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861) for advice:

A servant is not to be seated … in his master’s or mistress’s presence; nor to offer any opinion, unless asked for it; nor even to say “good night,” or “good morning,” except in reply to that salutation.  Continue reading