Sunday, 25 November 2012

Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni

I’m feeling very greedy – but very happy – to have two books published this year. Back in September my debut poetry collection Thousands Pass Here Every Day was published by Indigo Dreams Publishing and now my narrative non-fiction is about to hit the bookshelves.

Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni: Real Stories of Afghan Women is about the women, and their families, with whom I was privileged to live and work for several years. With Afghanistan very much in the news at the moment I hope my book will appeal to people who want to know what life is like for ordinary people who have lived with war as a background to their lives for decades.

I spent several years in Afghanistan, from when the Soviets left to when Taliban was poised at the gates of Kabul in 1996. I lived in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif and in the rural mountainous region of Hazara Jat in the centre of the country and returned ten years later to visit friends – we were quite possibly the only tourists in the country. Our visas were granted by return of post – the quickest I’ve ever had a visa stamped in my passport.

I wanted to write a book which showed a different perspective of women’s lives from the one usually depicted by the media. Despite the hardships in their lives – and there are many – the women are not all helpless downtrodden victims, but determined to make the best of life for themselves and their families.

I have been incredibly fortunate to have had some of our country’s best writers provide testimonials for Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni. If an author blowing her own trumpet doesn’t encourage you to investigate further perhaps the words of award winning author Eileen Ramsay might. She said: “At last, a book about Afghanistan written by someone who not only lived and worked there for several years but who obviously has a deep understanding and fondness for this troubled land and its peoples. As the mother of a serving British soldier, I have looked high and low for information that would help me understand why my son and so many others feel that their struggle in Afghanistan is 'right'.  Ms Smith has helped by introducing the reader of this truly beautiful book to some of the people, mostly women, with whom she lived.  I embarrassed myself and my husband by bursting into tears on a train while reading about the struggles of some of these remarkable women; an hour later, I found myself laughing out loud at the antics of others.”

Robin Yassin-Kassab, author, journalist and political blogger, described the book as “honest and unsentimental, intimate and comical, bringing Afghanistan into focus beyond the headlines and political posturing.”

Author of The Gathering Night, Margaret Elphinstone said: “Heroism is the keynote of this book - the kind of courage that struggles to make ordinary life worth living in the face of war, repression and reprisal. We encounter Afghan women who fight to be healthy, to control their fertility, to bring up strong children, to lead fulfilling lives: not exactly front-page news, but that’s the point. Smith brings her Afghan friends into such sharp focus that the reader is soon absorbed in their lives. These are the real lives behind the headlines; and such lives.”

And if you want to know why those chickens were drunk you need to buy the book. Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni: Real Stories of Afghan Women is available direct from the publisher, Indigo Dreams (who pay their taxes), on Amazon (who can offer discounts and free postage because they don’t) or in good bookshops – if they don’t have it in stock ask them to order it.

Join me on a journey from the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif (where you can meet the chickens) to the remote mountainous region of Hazara Jat and get to know my Afghan friends and their families.

Monday, 19 November 2012

The writer's world

Did anyone else watch Ian Rankin on BBC's Imagine the other night? I thought he was very brave to do a video diary of his book-writing process.

I watched the programme absolutely riveted – because so much of what he was saying and doing resonated with me. I wanted to hug him when he confessed that he still found it hard, after 28 books! I felt better when I realised that my first drafts are marginally more finished than his first drafts. And I wanted to jump up and down and yell, 'Me too!' when he told us that the 'magic' begins to happen on the second and later drafts.

Writers, I believe, are either plotters or pantsters - that is, they either plot every last detail of their work before they start writing, or they do the whole thing by the seat of their pants. Ian is a crime writer, so I was a bit surprised to discover that he is a pantster. There was a strange kind of alchemy that happened once he started, but  I was quite surprised that so much of the detail still needed to be filled in even after he had finished the first draft.

Another thing: when Ian writes, he apparently withdraws from – well, from pretty much everything, including his family. That seems like a luxury. Does it happen to women writers too? Or do they still have to shop, clean, cook, tidy? Sometimes I think it would be fantastic just to be able to sit and write all day, but then I realise that characters and plot points need to be mulled over. They need to mature and ripen in their own time and, actually, doing the cooking might be as good a time as any for this process to happen.

On another topic – briefly – it seems that 'granny lit' may at last be on the way in.
Has it had to wait for a generation of tech-savvy mature women to buy e-books before the publishing world has woken up to the fact that 'older women' read books too?

Wednesday, 14 November 2012


...and mistress of some of them, I hope. For trades, read writing.
When I'm introduced to someone new and tell them I'm a writer the inevitable question is 'What do you write?'
Well.....all sorts is the answer.
My first ever published piece was a little poem which I sent to People's Friend. It was about my then 8 year old son going to Cub Scout camp and was a cross between a Limerick and doggerel. But PF liked it and they illustrated it cartoon style. They paid me £10 for it which was quite a sum way back then for just twelve lines.
But looking at it now I can see it was truly awful so you'll all be relieved to know that's the end of my career in writing poetry!
My foray into short story writing came about because of my increasing deafness (fairly well-documented here and elsewhere). For this blog post I looked up my old records. Some months I would send out ten or so stories and sometimes none of those would sell at all. Another month might see five or six sales, then a fallow period. So in the fallow periods I decided to have a shot at writing articles.
My Weekly liked a couple of ideas - a feature about my cochlear implant and another about the threat of plastic bags on the invironment. they paid me very nicely for those along with some high res photos. I had similar pieces in local newspapers but nothing in the nationals. Yet!
My daughter-in-law, Elisabeth Hadley, is a sculptor. Like all artists, she was having a fallow period, too, just as short story sales dried up a bit for me. She asked if I would write something about her and her work for Devon Life. Well, I'd never written a feature on an artist in my life but I bought a copy of the publication and wrote something to what was obviously Devon Life's house style. My son lugged about half a dozen of Elisabeth's nude bronzes down to the beach and took some very arty photos of them with little frilly waves creeping up to their toes. I decided to be cheeky and I offered the article and photos to Devon Life for nowt if they liked it. Well, don't we all like a freebie? Devon Life was no exception. After that article was published two artists got in touch with me to ask if I would do the same for them. Not for free I wouldn't. So again, I got cheeky and asked Devon Life if they would pay me for these two art features. They would. And so began a couple of very happy years going around to art exhibitions and going to artists' houses and studios to interview them. I racked up about 70 features for Devon Life, Cornwall Life, Somerset Life and Dorset Life. I even interviewed a glass blower/engraver who made all the glassware for the first Harry Potter film.
I began to get commissions to write beauty and lifestyle features.I got sent to gyms and health spas and had my feet and my nails and my body primped to within an inch of its life for said features. But while they were fun, I'm a soap and water, shampoo, a slap of Olay on my cheeks, and a dab of lipstick sort of woman really.
And then the recession hit and Archant Life (which owns all these Life publications) stopped taking work from freelance writers and did it all in-house.
But that was all right because short stories started taking off again. I gained some new markets in Scandinavia and Australia and that kept me busy - and still does.
Why not write a novel? more than a few asked me. So I had a go at that - well, seven goes actually before Choc Lit took me on. All has been heavily documented here and elsewhere...:)
So, that's a few writing things that I do. Then there are guest blogs. And my own blog. And this blog. Some reviewers interviewed not me but the characters in TO TURN FULL CIRCLE (see, I've managed to name-drop at last!). Do Facebook messages count as writing? I could argue that they do because don't we all try and spell things correctly and put in the correct punctuation and make those post interesting and fun or very informative? Ditto Twitter where we have to hone the thing right down to 140 characters or whatever.
So, enough about me......but I think if we write we can write all sorts.
What does anyone esle do to pay the bills?
And to sign off here's a picture of Elisabeth's beautiful mermaid statue.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Bonfire Night and All That

Words and their origins have always interested me and with Bonfire Night upon us I found myself wondering where the word ‘bonfire’ came from.  My immediate thought was ‘good fire’, from the French ‘bon’ for good.  However, I couldn’t be more wrong.  According to an online etymological site it comes from the Middle English banefire meaning a fire on which bones were burnt.  Which I suppose is appropriate, if we burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes on it, as was traditional in my childhood (although I haven’t seen this recently), but certainly gives a much more gory meaning to the celebration.

Mmm, and where does the word ‘effigy’ come from?  According to the same dictionary, it is derived from the Latin effigies (back to Latin – such an important language, see my last blog!) which meant copy or imitation of something.  More interesting, in the context of Bonfire Night, the page on which I found this also produced the fact that the word ‘guy’ has come to its current meaning (man, fellow) starting with the effigy of Guy Fawkes, a 'guy' being a figure paraded through the streets by children, then 'guy' meaning a poorly dressed person – and to our present usage.

And so this set me wondering again – where does ‘dudes’ come from, a term used these days interchangeably with ‘guys’ to signal a group of people as in ‘what do you dudes/guys think’.  Dude apparently came into common usage in America in the 1880s to mean 'city slicker' or 'fastidious dresser'.  Definitely not what we mean by it now.  Our current usage comes from the 1960s when the term was used by Black Americans to mean any man.

I could go on and on!  On Saturday, as an early celebration of Bonfire Night, we had a Bonfire Party.  So, where does the word ‘party’ come from?  According the etymologists it is from the Old French partie meaning ‘side’ or ‘division’, usually the side in a dispute.  It only came to mean a gathering of people for social reasons (as opposed to disputing) in the 18th Century, usually for a specific purpose such as ‘hunting party’, ‘dinner party’.

So there we have it.  On Saturday we held a gathering of people (dudes? They were certainly well-dressed) who all take the same side in order to burn bones on a fire… or maybe not.  Whatever it was, we had a good time.