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Rare Saturday Post: Podcast Episode 05 With Samantha Sotto

Good morning/afternoon all. As mentioned on Monday, here is the latest episode of The Worm Hole Podcast together with the transcript. The episode will also be available on iTunes and Spotify – I’ve just moved hosts so it may take a few hours to get to them. The main episode page, which includes the rest of the show notes, is here: Episode 05: Samantha Sotto.

Charlie Place and Samantha Sotto (Before Ever After; Love and Gravity; A Dream of Trees) discuss characters that join you in your car in the midst of a traffic jam, time travelling with Issac Newton, switching from your fully researched work in progress to a story that needs to be told, and… chickens?


For ease of reading, ‘umms’ and similar, as well as sentence false starts, have been left out.

[intro music]

Charlie: Hello and welcome to The Worm Hole podcast. I’m Charlie Place, and with me today is Samantha Sotto, author the fantasy and magical realism novels, Before Ever After, Love and Gravity, and A Dream of Trees. Welcome Sam.

Sam: Thank you for having me, thanks a lot Charlie, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Charlie: I’m very glad to have you here. So [both laugh] it’s been a long time – I’ve been reading your books for a while.

Sam: It’s good to hear what your voice sounds like finally! It’s kind of surreal in fact.

Charlie: Yeah. I may have done some research before I had on you on this podcast so I knew your voice and, yes. It’s nice to speak to you personally.

Sam: Okay, great. I’m wondering now what recordings of me are out there, I’m scared! [laughs]

Charlie: Well it’s all on YouTube, you’re fine [laughs].

Sam: Oh really, okay. Hopefully not the family Christmas parties and things like that!

Charlie: Well, I’ll edit this out but, yes, yes it is. [Sam laughs] There is one of you at Christmas, yes.

Sam: Oh my god!

Charlie: I will edit this statement out.

Sam: No problem, no problem [laughs]. You can keep it in, and all the views for that mysterious video will suddenly go up [laughs].

Charlie: Yes [laughs]. So, the story of how you came to start writing is a really interesting one. And it involves traffic jams, so would you like to explain, it’s good.

Sam: Sure. Well, I live in Manilas as you know and Manila traffic is, well, it’s like a car apocalypse every day, so you really have to learn ways of coping. And what happened to me was that I was stuck in traffic one day and the idea for Before Ever After literally just popped into my head. Max, the main character of the story, just popped into my car and literally said, ‘hello, I’m Max, I believe that you can get through anything if you have a chicken, and I have a very interesting story to tell’ [laughs]. And from that time on he really didn’t leave me alone so I had no choice but to lock myself up and finish writing the book.

Charlie: So he came to you as he very much is in the book, then, because he’s a kind of character that has lots of different personality bits to him which you realise as you read the book, you find out why.

So you say about the chicken, that’s something that is throughout the book. Is there anything that inspired the chicken and the egg situation?

Sam: [laughs] I wish I could claim that I thought about that, but literally it was Max’s idea. I mean he came-

Charlie: Right.

Sam: -Complete. He was literally fully formed, and he was the one who said that he believed he could get through anything if he had a chicken, and yeah I just, you know, had to go along with it [laughs]. I realise I sound like a crazy person and to people who haven’t read the book, I can already see what their faces look like at this point, but yeah, that’s the truth [laughs].

Charlie: It’s a good book, if anyone’s hearing and you haven’t read it, do. And I think you’ve picked a reading that summarises the book perfectly and it will open the door to more questions. So, let’s have a reading I think.

Sam: Okay. So this is from the prologue.

[Reading excluded to respect copyright]

Charlie: So then we move to his wife Shelley a few years later, when she’s still grieving him, she’s living in London, and one day there’s this knock on her door, and it’s a shock, more of a shock than she thinks, because this man there looks like Max and instead it’s someone who claims to be her grandson, Paulo, who says that Max is alive and well and living in the Philippines.

Sam: Yes, he’s the same age as her husband!

Charlie: Yes, which is, you know, I’m not going to say any more there – that’s your story and how it continues, it’s just great. So, this story, it’s not time travel but it plays with time, and then you’ve got the road trip, the touring holiday aspect, and there’s stories here that are drawn from history but you’ve gone for the lesser-known options, and can you tell us a bit more about that?

Sam: Okay, so, Before Ever After, as you said, is my first book, and I really didn’t know how to write a book [laughs], much less outline one, and so I didn’t outline it. What I instead did was that I knew that the book was going to take place across a road trip, across Europe, and so in lieu of an outline I basically Google Mapped my way through Europe, choosing the countries that I was familiar with, because I had visited before. So I knew that it was going to start in London, and I knew that it was going to end in Italy. And in between those countries I just chose the countries that I had visited before. And when I chose those countries I Googled two things: I Googled one thing, I chose, ‘strange chicken facts’ [laughs].

Charlie: It really got to you, that! [laughs]

Sam: Exactly, exactly, the chickens had to be a part of the story. So I Googled ‘strange chicken facts’, and I matched that up with the historical period that – because you’re going backwards through time, right, so we start at the earliest point and going backwards – so I matched that up with the historical period, and I inserted my strange chicken fact into the lesser-known part of history and from there weaved my story or my version of the events that happened during that time, so again, a very strange story [laughs]. But all the historical canvas of this book is absolutely true because I felt that I was asking readers to take such a huge leap of faith with the concept of the story that I felt that the historical background had to be really solid and even the strange chicken facts had to be really solid that people could suspend their disbelief and really go along with the fantasy.

Charlie: Yeah, it just, it’s brilliant, this book, yeah. So, I’m going to ask the question that I was going to ask last because you’re talking about the chickens, throughout the book we’ve been hearing all about this egg and cheese dish that Max makes…

Sam: Ah, yes, yes.

Charlie:… And I am going to cut to the end because we get the the end and you’re about to tell us the secret ingredient, and then you don’t, you put a dash there and [argh!]. Is there an ingredient for this recipe [Sam: There is], or is it still a secret?

Sam: Oh well it’s still a secret. I received a lot of messages begging me for it and I have, on occasion, spilled the beans, but yes, it’s an actual ingredient and yes, this is a dish that we actually make at home. Because it’s my husband’s recipe in fact, and it’s his secret so I guess it’s his secret to tell [laughs]. And I can’t share it now, unless we invite him on to the podcast.

Charlie: Well it sounds like he needs to make a restaurant on an island… [both laugh] and I’m not going to say any more than that, ‘cos it might spoil it.

Charlie: So I want to go back and discuss Doctor Who because I know when I was reading this, the first time I was reading this and reading Max and thinking, he’s just such a character and he’s got this very British feel to him but because of his back story there’s also lots of different cultural aspects to him that kind of meld together. And I know the second time that I read the book I had a lot more of a feeling for who he might be inspired by and I know you said about Doctor Who [Sam: Yes]. Where does this come into the story?

Sam: Well Max is my Doctor Who. So my goal in life is to be Doctor Who’s travelling companion and so while waiting for that I decided to create my own version of Doctor Who and for me, yeah, he is my Doctor and everybody in the van travelling throughout Europe with him, well, their his companions, and I when I wrote this book I thought of myself as one of the people in the van, and just as the companions accompany the Doctor on the Tardis, that’s really how I envisioned this book because I was so deep in – well I still am – but I was so deep into Doctor Who while I was writing this book, I was just so inspired by it and so, yeah, Max is my Doctor.

Charlie: Interesting to hear because I had Peter Capaldi in mind, I think, the second time; that was the person who I thought, this kind of melds most for me, but that’s very interesting to hear about your Max.

Sam: The Doctor at the time I was writing Max was David Tennant and while he’s my all-time favourite Doctor and, in fact, my Golden Retriever, my furbaby is named Tennant [laughs].

Charlie: You’ve mentioned you’re working from the present day backwards, you know, you start with Shelley in the present day. How was it working that way?

Sam: Surprisingly easy because I’m not a very linear person – once you’ve read my books, I think you’ve got that by now. One of the most interesting things, or why I like to write about stories like this is because of the time aspect. Time is almost always a character in my books because in real life, time is something that you have the least control of, you’re at the mercy of time. But when I write about time I feel like it’s the only time I can control time. So yeah, I get to channel my inner Time Lord when I write these books and I guess my brain is already mixed up [laughs], a bit topsy-turvy that way, so that when I do write things backwards, forwards, sideways, and all sorts of ways, it kind of makes sense in my head. So, for me it doesn’t feel like I’m writing a story backwards or forwards, it’s just how the story reveals itself to me in my mind, and that’s how I write it down.

Charlie: Was there any particular time period that you enjoyed working on, or were they all good?

Sam: Well, I guess my favourite one was the last part, because that required a lot of imagination because that’s where we kind of reveal how Max came to be, and that was very challenging for me because I felt that for that reveal to work, that whole time period had to feel very very real, and so I guess I researched that the most, and watched documentaries, and I read a lot, just so that I could flesh it out in my head and, I don’t want to give spoilers but the place that the setting is in, although I had been to Italy – but that specific place I hadn’t been to, so I was relying a lot on desk research. I only got to visit that specific place, in fact Max’s house, only after I had finished the book. Like, I made it a point to bring my kids there, to show them the settings of the book, and it was so surreal for me, stepping into that place because it was exactly as I had imagined it to be, so it was really really strange, from this movie in my head to actually be there in real life, that was pretty special.

Charlie: Yeah, I won’t reveal much either but it’s quite a haunting story.

Sam: It’s hard to talk without revealing spoilers!

Charlie Yes! But it’s good that we’re talking about it ‘cos there’s so much, especially at the start of the book, you read it and you think, you know, ah well, this is a fantasy novel, and it’s incredibly comedic, but there are some really poignant, almost tear-jerking moments, in the book, that really kind of show different historic periods. You know, you’ve got the happier historic periods, and then the not so. So it’s something that’s important to really clarify it, I think.

Charlie: But I am going to go back to the comedy briefly because you’ve got this group of people in your camper van, it’s great, this little touring holiday it’s a very personalised intimate experience for everyone. And the group of campers that join Max and Shelley, they are just brilliant and they have a great dynamic, where did they first come into the story for you?

Sam: Well, as I said earlier, I thought of myself as part of that tour so I tried to come up with characters that I would – in real life – enjoy being with. So characters that I found interesting or funny. So that’s basically how I created them, like who are my ideal travelling companions? So, yeah.

Charlie: So, one of them is Shelley, who we haven’t really mentioned so much yet, she is the second main character. And she’s coming from a place of grief and she thinks a lot and her thoughts are kind of metaphors that mask her real worries – sometimes, you know, sometimes they’re masks and sometimes her thoughts are clear. Where did she first come into the book for you?

Sam: When I met Max, he did tell me that he had a wife, and so he was the one who made the introduction to Shelley. As for her back story, it came to me as I wrote the book, if that made any sense. I got to know her as I wrote her. It was a really special experience writing this book because it was almost as if I was eavesdropping on conversations and simply writing their words down. So I really didn’t know who she was fully until I started going along the ride, just as readers, so I feel like I my experience of writing the book actually mirrors the experience readers had while they were reading it, because everything was a discovery for me as well. Again, as I said, I didn’t have an outline, I had a Google map, and strange chicken facts, so things were very organic and as they revealed themselves to me, that’s the only time I really got to know the characters. And then of course then in editing you come back and polish things and let things make sense but, yeah, the characters were revealed to me slowly, so if there was anything that was going to happen to them it came as much as a surprise to me, I guess, as to the reader. So, like oh my gosh, I didn’t want to do this to you but oh, you know, it just happened, so I didn’t really plan anything [laughs]. Strange, yes, I know.

Charlie: Well, no, it’s interesting hearing about when people do or don’t plan because certainly with Before Ever After, it does sound like there was a plan there, which is great, you know. And to hear you didn’t do that, it’s very interesting.

Sam: I guess, because I didn’t know any better, I mean it would’ve gone faster and more smoothly if I had planned in advance, maybe, I don’t know, because I was really winging it. I mean I wasn’t a writer at that point in time, my background was in marketing, I had worked for Unilever and Johnson & Johnson, and really my marketing experience is writing marketing briefs and things like that. And I guess that’s why Before Ever After is structured the way it is, because I figured, I don’t know how to write a really long story so I’m going to tell this story in bite-sized pieces, so I figured that if I could write one chapter with one story in that historical period, then I could write another one. So I just kind of approached it that way so that I wouldn’t scare myself off, so the format being in a tour and the stories being the stops in the tour, that was because of what I thought my ability to write. The format, I felt, was something that wasn’t intimidating for me as a new writer, like I could handle – it’s almost like short stories, right, strung together? So I felt that okay, I can handle a short story and so that’s why the format of the book is that way.

Charlie: Well yes, you saying that, they are ultimately, while the road trip itself obviously carries on, the historical bits are little stories within the whole. [Sam: right] But no, that is incredibly interesting to hear that, it just does not come across in the story at all, which is great, yeah! So we’d better move on to Love and Gravity, your second book. And I think we’ll start with a reading ’cause your reading will introduce the book well I believe.

Sam: So this is from chapter one.

[Reading excluded to respect copyright]

Charlie: So this is your second book and it’s more I suppose of a time travelling adventure, and this time you’ve got Issac Newton, a character who is very real. So the factual history of Newton is that, to our knowledge at least, he never married or have a lover. When did you first have the idea to fill in this gap?

Sam: When I was thinking of Love and Gravity I wanted to choose a character that I could change people’s perception of, so I thought that Isaac Newton fit the bill because he’s the type of person you study in school, you don’t think of him as a romantic lead, we really know of him through his discoveries and, yes, as you said, he’s someone who’s never been married. But as I was researching him, I discovered that he had what they call this miracle year, and that happened when he was twenty-four years old. And during that year is when he made all his major discoveries about gravity and calculus and optics, but the thing is he wasn’t in the public eye at that time because it was during that time that his school had closed because of plague and he was forced to return home, and we don’t really know anything about that period. So I thought, okay, perfect, this is the gap that I need to create my story. So that’s why I chose him, because one – he was this figure that we had a very clear picture of – but at the same time a real opportunity to, you know, surprise people with a new story about him.

Charlie: I hadn’t heard that before, about the year and not being in society, I suppose. That does sound very plausible, yeah. That sounds like something that could definitely have happened.

Charlie: You’ve got how you start it, a box, and you have this extract from John Maynard Keynes about a box that was opened and contained manuscripts. And that is a real thing and it did contain the manuscripts, that’s where you brought your story in – where did this part come in?

Sam: Yeah, well actually there’s a funny story – John Maynard Keynes actually played a bigger part in the first draft of this book, in fact he was in half of the book because he was such an Issac Newton fan, fan boy, if you will, and so in the original draft of Love and Gravity his love story with his wife, a Russian ballerina, played a big part in the book, but when I sent the draft to my agent she felt that that other love story detracted from the focus on Issac and Andrea, so yes, I was faced with a huge problem and my agent told me to take him out because I had forty thousand words missing. [Charlie: gosh, yeah, that’s quite a lot.] Because originally his wife played a big part in delivering Isaac’s letters to Andrea in the present day and without her in the book I had to figure out another way to deliver the letters, which I can’t say here without giving spoilers but yeah, so, I had to rework the whole mechanics of how Issac communicated with Andrea without that part of the story, without John Maynard Keynes in the story.

Charlie: We’ll leave the spoilers out but that bit does sound very much like it has been in the planning from the very beginning.

Charlie: So, talking of Newton further, as you cover in the book his mother left him to start another family, and in Love and Gravity, Andrea, your other main character, her mother leaves her likewise. Was this comparison something you were working towards?

Sam: Yes, because I wanted them to find that emotional connection so they had, you know, obviously they’re from different times so they couldn’t be more different – he’s a man of science and math, and she’s a musical prodigy so I needed some emotional connection between the two so I felt giving them some sort of background issues, it would be something they could draw from for their relationship.

Charlie: Yeah, it struck me when I read it, particularly the second time, looking for these extra details, but I really liked, with Andrea’s section particularly, where you’ve got her stepmother, Sylvia – for quite a while she’s only in the book in terms of Andrea’s thoughts, and you have this bit where Sylvia herself never gets dialogue until Andrea has accepted her, which I thought was absolutely wonderful. Yeah, just wanted to point that out to people, this wonderful working here of the child slowly working towards this acceptance and the way it’s handled is great.

Sam: Thank you for noticing that. I’m thrilled!

Charlie: Yeah, it’s wonderful, it’s lovely, it’s just so focused on Andrea as a child.

Charlie: So better move on to the science and music, because there is a lot of science and music in this book, obviously science with Issac Newton, and the music comes in the form of Andrea as a budding cello player, as a child budding, and then she becomes more and more proficient, and she does a bit of composition which is key to the story. And so there is a lot of science and music, both, equal amount, what was it like to write about both of them together?

Sam: Well, since I’m definitely not great at math or science and neither am I remotely good at music, those were quite challenging things [laughs], which is exactly why I wanted to write about them, because I felt that music was such a challenge to write because I wanted to write it in the way that people could hear the music, almost, as they were reading the story and I found it really interesting, you know, as a writer, I felt that that was really pushing myself because, yeah – I don’t play an instrument! I had to get a lot of tips from the real Andrea, my daughter, who plays the violin, she plays piano, she plays the ukulele, she plays the guitar, I mean she’s really musically inclined and I had to get a lot of tips from her. And her name is Andrea – that’s her second name – so I modeled a lot of the musicality of Andrea from her, and also watching a lot of YouTube video cello tutorials. Yeah, getting a crash course in cello. As far as the math and science was concerned, again a challenge because oh my gosh, this I had to get my husband’s help; he had to explain a lot of calculus to me. So luckily he’s very math inclined so, yeah, thanks to my husband and to my daughter for allowing me to pick their brains, and helping to make me sound smarter than I actually am!

Charlie: So did you talk to your daughter about including her name in the book and she’s okay with that, yeah? [Laughs]

Sam: Yes. She is okay with it, in fact if people look up the book trailer for Love and Gravity on YouTube, the room of Andrea’s was actually shot in her room, the room I’m sitting in now! Yes, so they did a little bit of set design but it was basically her room so, yeah, if people want to look at the real Andrea’s room just hop on over to YouTube!

Charlie: I’ll include the link below in the description for anyone who wants to do that. So that, again, very interesting to hear because, I suppose I’d kind of known from reading about your background to writing this book that maybe science wasn’t something that you knew personally, that that was more of a research thing for you, but the music, I expected you to say ‘well, I play the cello…’ [both laugh] so yeah.

Sam: Okay, gosh, that was so hard. I think that was harder to research than the science part because that’s where I really had to craft it so that the words would make people feel something. You know, people aren’t required to feel something about science or math, but I felt that if I was going to write about music, people had to feel something for it, had to sense it somehow. And so, yeah, that’s why the way Andrea experiences music is through her other senses as well, so I felt that that was the best way to translate music so that it could travel from the pages of the book into the different senses of the readers.

Charlie: It does. And I’m just going to point out to anyone who can hear your dogs in the background, they sound like they’d like to be included.

Sam: That’s Alfie and Tennant [both laugh] saying hello, wondering where I am, why I’m hiding up here.

Charlie: Ahh, no, it’s those books again, she’s going on about that!

Sam: I know, like oh my gosh, mum, will you quit it already!

Charlie: Are they going to star in a book?

Sam: Alfie is actually in A Dream of Trees [both laugh] but he’s not a dog in the book, but if people read the book they’ll discover who Alfie is, he is a character for sure! Cos Alfie is a rescue dog so that’ll make sense when people read the book and discover who the character is.

Charlie: Umm! Yeah I know on Twitter you retweet a lot of rescues, so that’s interesting to hear about that.

Charlie: So, there’s a lot of classical literature in this book, a lot of Ovid, particularly. Do you like classical poetry at all?

Sam: No! [Both laugh] I included Ovid because of his tale about Pyramus and Thisbe, which inspired William Shakespeare – William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. And Pyramus and Thisbe, basically they’re star-crossed lovers separated by a wall, because their families live next-door to each other, but hate each others’ guts [laughs] so they basically could only talk through a crack in the wall. So I felt that it mirrors Love and Gravity but my crack is a crack through time. And I felt that, yeah, Ovid had a lot of wisdom to share in the book!

Charlie: So was that one of the starting points as well, Ovid, or did you come to that later?

Sam: I came to that later. So that was happy, that was a really happy discovery and when I make discoveries like that I feel like it’s the universe nudging me on, telling me that I’m on the right track!

Charlie: Yeah, no I read that and I read about Pyramus and Thisbe in the book and I went ‘ahh, so this is where you can see the idea coming in’, so you saying no, that came later, that is – I want to say a coincidence, but it’s not at the same time – yes, well, it’s a kind of magical realism in reality, I suppose.

Sam: Yes! Exactly, exactly, just like my strange chicken facts and Before Ever After, like, who knew?

Charlie: Have you ever owned any chickens?

Sam: [Laughs] No! I’ve eaten them [both laugh] no, but chickens play a big role also, and just to share a little story about chickens, because Before Ever After is my baby novel so this is the book that landed me an agent, and one of the things that helped me choose an agent, well I believe in signs in the universe, and my agent’s name is Stephanie Kip Rostan, and when I was making my shortlist of agents I put her on the top of the list because of her middle name. I had lived in Holland during my college days, and one of the few Dutch words that I still remember is ‘kip’ and ‘kip’ is the Dutch word for surprise, surprise, ‘chicken’ [laughs]. So I said of course she had to be at the top of my list, and yeah, I felt the universe nudging me in her direction and it turned out to be true!

Charlie: There is a lot of chicken stories in Before Ever After as we’ve said, but there is a lot more. So if chicken isn’t your thing and your listening to this podcast thinking ‘my goodness, this is a lot of chickens’ there is a lot more as well. So if you love chickens, you will love this book, if you’re not so interested in chickens you will still love this book, you know, do read it. [Both laugh].

Sam: I know, people might be like what in the world is this book about? [laughs]

Charlie: If you are enjoying our discussion on chickens and everything else, Before Ever After is very funny, so you’re on the right track, and kind of in relative terms, Love and Gravity is less comedic, there are, I think, zero chickens in that one unless potentially they’ve eaten chicken for lunch.

Sam: Yes, yes [laugh].

Charlie: So we should probably move on to A Dream of Trees, and shall we start with your reading?

Sam: Okay. So this is from the first chapter as well.

[Reading excluded to respect copyright]

Charlie: So we are going to talk about about this book a little bit less because for anyone who hasn’t read it, the journey of this book is just stupendous and we’re going to be careful about spoilers, so I’m just going to say that beyond that, beyond what Sam has just read in the prologue, we open with character Aiden who is in a hotel room, he is waiting to die, and suddenly into this room walks our lady, who we’ve just been introduced to, who he’s never met, and she’s going to want to take him into ‘rooms’, as they’re called – something he has to do before death. So I will leave the premise there, that is your premise. And it is an incredibly moving book; you do want to have some tissues with you, and it’s incredibly different to the other two books but still just as good, you know – this is definitely a Samantha Sotto book, but very away from all the time travel. So, Sam, it is a break away and I know that you self-published this one. What was the reason if you can expand on that?

Sam: Well the book came to me as a gift. It popped into my head – from the beginning it didn’t feel like the idea was my own, I felt that it was given to me, just for me to tell, that I was just a messenger of this story. Because I literally would dream about these scenes and the next day I would just write down what I dreamt about. So I felt that the way I received the book from the universe, you know, was so generous, it took no time to write because it was really complete, and it just fell into place. When I spoke to my agent about it, about the idea to give it as a gift on my birthday, on my tenth year in publishing, she said, yeah, you know she really fully supported it, and felt that it was a good way to thank my readers and to connect with them, so I’m very grateful for her support and, yeah, I just felt that it was something that I wanted to give as a gift because it came to me as a gift, and I was able to process a lot of my own emotions as I wrote this book. I knew that self-publishing it was going to limit the readership but I also felt that it would find its way to the readers who needed to read it the most. And I don’t think it’s the kind of book, maybe people are ready for, like they can pick up Before Ever After and just read it, and Love and Gravity; I feel this book almost requires you to be in a certain state of mind, and I feel that it will find you when you need to read it, the way it found me when I needed to write it.

Charlie: Yeah, I know when I was thinking of how to recommend it to people and saying about there’s a lot of sadness in it – as you say, the time for every reader to read it is individual, and they will find it. So, is this a subject that – you say the book came as a gift – is the content in it, something that you have a passion for, that you’ve developed a passion for?

Sam: Yes. I wrote it at a different time in the world than when I wrote Before Ever After, even Love and Gravity. I felt that the world had gotten a little bit darker, because of things that were happening in my country and also outside of the country, and I had actually started writing another book after Love and Gravity, a love story with fairies, set in Scotland, and I in fact had visited Scotland to do research. I was in the middle of that book and I felt like, wait, you know, let’s put this book on pause first, because I was going through a lot of emotions that I couldn’t process just in my head, I needed it to be out on paper, and the idea for this book came along and I thought, okay, this is how I’m going to process all these issues, a lot of negatively that I was feeling also, the disappointment I had with the world. And in the end although on the surface it seems like such a dark book because it is about death and processing death – ultimately I think it is a book on how to live, and how to find hope, and that’s what I found for myself as well when I wrote this book because I was searching for hope, I was searching for the light at the end of the tunnel and I think that by going through the stories of the characters I was able to process my own thoughts as well.

Charlie: Yes, and you say about events happenings in your country and also of course there are events all round the world, it’s an incredibly international book, I think everybody – they’ll relate to things in Love and Gravity and Before Ever After, but if there’s a book of yours that you had to pinpoint and say that everybody is going to relate to it, this is a book for absolutely everybody. It is an important aspect of it.

Charlie: So you say about this book – you’ve gone to Scotland to research, which is obviously a lot of time spent. Do you think you might go back to this book?

Sam: Yeah, definitely; the manuscript is there, it’s twenty or thirty thousand words in so it’s definitely a story that I want to go back to when the time is right. Although I’m writing another story now, a different one, so maybe after that I can go back to the fairy story in Scotland.

Charlie: So we will be going to magical realism and fantasy – obviously A Dream of Trees is fantasy – but you will be returning to the past versions of your fantasy novels, yes.

Sam: Oh yeah, yeah, I just felt that once I was able to get A Dream of Trees out of my system I felt much lighter, I felt more optimistic, I felt that I could write love stories again, so that’s where my mind is at now, and yes, so that is the kind of story I’m working on right now.

Charlie: So, I know you finished NaNoWriMo a few days before the end of November – quick summary about that, is that a book we might see?

Sam: Fingers crossed, yeah. It’s incredibly rough at this point in time but I’m very excited about it because I feel like, in a way it’s returning to my roots but at the same time also moving forward, picking up the lessons I learned from writing A Dream of Trees and all the other books, and being able to incorporate that into a story that I feel will resonate with a lot of people.

Charlie: So, Sam, we are running out of time I see so, it has been awesome having you here today and learning about the stories behind your books – I know we’ve spoken via email a couple of times a few years ago but this has been absolutely wonderful, having you hear on the show.

Sam: Great, I’ve had a great time.

Charlie: Me too, it’s been wonderful. Before Ever After and Love and Gravity are published by Random House, and the imprints Broadway and Ballantine respectively. And A Dream of Trees is available on Amazon. Links to all three books are in the description for this podcast below. Sam, thank you very much for joining me.
Sam: Thank you so much, Charlie, it was great talking to you, I had a lot of fun.

Charlie: Join me on Monday the 13th January 2020, when I will be talking to Nancy Bilyeau, author of the Joanna Stafford trilogy, The Blue, and the forthcoming Dreamland.

[production credits]

Christmas Blogging Briefing

A photograph of a Christmas flower wreath made of materials in gold, red, and green

I’m taking an extra few blogging days off prior to this Christmas period as I have a ton more left to do (though the presents are bought, wrapped, and under the tree, which hasn’t happened this early before), but it won’t be a complete break, so to speak.

I’ll be returning to ‘normal’ postings on Monday 6th January; I’ll begin the year as I tend to with round ups and goals, and I’ll have a review or two, and a thoughts post or two, ready for you. However, as my last podcast episode of the year is this coming Saturday, I’ll be making a post for it to go out as any other; I plan to create a transcript for it so it won’t be just a media player, rather something more substantial and an alternative to 46-odd minutes of audio. It was a particularly fun episode to make – I’m in conversation with Filipino author Samantha Sotto whose work I’ve loved for years and there was a lot of laughter and talk about chickens, in fact we probably spent a good quarter or so of the time talking about chickens for one reason or another.

I’ll probably post tweet-sized reviews to Twitter – I’ve Nicola Cornick’s April release on my ‘very soon’ list. I’ll also be replying to your latest comments here and I hope to visit your own blogs more than I have been recently. And that concludes the blog briefing.

This weekend I watched a bit of Strictly Come Dancing (I’ve seen very little before) – a competition show that pairs professional dancers with celebrities; the basic format’s the standard one you likely all know. A particular dance was brilliant, and I thought I’d share it. The woman is the dancer; the guy an actor. They ended up winning and from what I could tell, it seemed well deserved.

Seasons greetings and happy holidays to you all; see you very briefly on Saturday, and on Twitter, and then back here on the 6th.

The 2019 Young Writer Of The Year Award Winner

A photograph of Raymond Antrobus

The Young Writer of the Year Award 2019 was won yesterday evening by Raymond Antrobus for his poetry collection, The Perseverance. I was unfortunately unable to get there this year but I have details to share; it is fab news, a well deserved win. The poet has also won this year’s Ted Hughes Prize, the Rathbones Folio Prize, and a Somerset Maugham Award; he’s been shortlisted for many others. In terms of Young Writer, he joins Sarah Howe, Max Porter, Sally Rooney, and Adam Weymouth in the list of winners since the prize was relaunched.

Kate Clanchy, one of the five judges said:

“…We wanted to find a writer who both speaks for now and who we were confident would continue to produce valuable, central work. Raymond Antrobus’ The Perseverance draws together the worlds of performance and page poetry and speaks for his Jamaican British heritage and his d/Deaf communities in a way that is completely contemporary; but it was the humanity of the book, its tempered kindness, and its commitment not just to recognising difference but to the difficult act of forgiveness that made us confident we had
found a winner for this extraordinary year.”

Book Cover

The poet was six when his deafness was discovered; previously it had been thought he had learning difficulties. He worked in different jobs – removals, gyms, swimming pools, security – before becoming a teacher. He used some of the winning money from the Rathbones Folio Prize to mentor a group of deaf children at his old school, Blanche Nevile School for Deaf Children, and for groups of students from both Blanche Nevile and Oak Lodge Deaf School, where his former headteacher now works, to go on poetry, theatre and literature trips throughout the year.

This year all the shortlisted authors will receive a year’s membership to the London Library, where the award ceremony was held. The three other shortlisted authors were Julia Armfield (Salt Slow), Yara Rodrigues Fowler (Stubborn Archivist, and Kim Sherwood (Testament).

The photo of Raymond Antrobus is by Caleb Femi.

The Rathbones Folio Prize 2018

A photograph of the book spines of the Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist with the prize logo added to the top of the image

The Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist has been announced (27th March) and the winner will awarded on 8th May. Here you’ll find the relevant information followed by my thoughts.

Now in its fourth year, the Prize was sponsored by The Folio Society for its first two years in 2014 and 2015, then Rathbone Investment Management Ltd took over at the tail end of 2016 for a May 2017 beginning. It was when Rathbone came on board that the prize expanded to include all types of literature – poetry, and non-fiction, among others. The prize was founded to praise literary fiction, which the founders saw being pushed aside by the Man Booker. Margaret Atwood is recorded as saying the prize is, “much needed in a world in which money is increasingly becoming the measure of all things”.

This year’s judges are Jim Crace, Nikesh Shukla and Kate Summerscale. There is a jury consisting of 250 writers and critics, that take part; the judges are selected from this. Books are nominated by the jury. Last year’s winner was Hisham Matar’s The Return.

This year the eight books shortlisted are, with blurbs:

Book cover Book cover Book cover Book cover

Elizabeth Strout: Anything Is Possible (Penguin) – This book explores the whole range of human emotion through the intimate dramas of people struggling to understand themselves and others. It tells the story of the inhabitants of rural, dusty Amgash, Illinois, the hometown of Lucy Barton, a successful New York writer who finally returns, after seventeen years of absence, to visit the siblings she left behind.

Sally Rooney: Conversations With Friends (Faber & Faber) – Frances, Bobbi, Nick and Melissa ask each other endless questions. In person and online, they discuss sex and friendship, art and literature, politics and gender, and, of course, one another. At the heart of it all is twenty-one year-old Frances, bringing us this tale of a complex ménage-à-quatre and her affair with Nick, an older married man.

Mohsin Hamid: Exit West (Hamish Hamilton) – In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace – or at least not yet openly at war – two young people notice one another. They share a cup of coffee, a smile, an evening meal. They try not to hear the sound of bombs getting closer every night, the radio announcing new laws, the public executions.

Richard Lloyd Parry: Ghosts Of The Tsunami (Jonathan Cape) – On 11 March 2011, a massive earthquake sent a 120-foot-high tsunami smashing into the coast of north-east Japan, causing the deaths of over 18,500 people. Even after the immediate emergency had abated, the trauma of the disaster continued to express itself in bizarre and mysterious ways. Parry, an award-winning foreign correspondent, lived through the earthquake in Tokyo, and spent six years reporting from the disaster zone.

Book cover Book cover Book cover Book cover

Xiaolu Guo: Once Upon A Time In The East (Chatto & Windus) – When Xiaolu Guo was born in 1973, her parents handed her over to a childless, peasant couple, in the mountains. Aged two, and suffering from malnutrition, they left her with her illiterate grandparents in a fishing village on the East China Sea. The book takes Xiaolu from a run-down shack, to film school in a rapidly changing Beijing, to a scholarship in Britain.

Jon McGregor: Reservoir 13 (Fourth Estate) – In the hills at the heart of England a teenage girl has gone missing. The villagers join the search, police set up roadblocks, and a crowd of news reporters descends. The search for the missing girl goes on, but so does everyday life. As it must.

Richard Beard: The Day That Went Missing (Vintage) – On a family summer holiday in Cornwall in 1978, Nicholas and his brother Richard are jumping in the waves. Suddenly, Nicky is out of his depth. He isn’t, and then he is. He drowns. Incredibly, the family soon stop speaking of the catastrophe, an epic act of collective denial which writes Nicky out of the family memory. Nearly forty years later, Richard Beard is haunted by the missing grief of his childhood.

Hari Kunzru: White Tears (Penguin) – New Yorkers Carter and Seth chop up old music to make it new again, ripping off black culture to line white pockets. But one day they stumble on an old blues song – an undiscovered gem – and land themselves in a heap of trouble.

I have been considering Guo’s memoir for a while, and have Rooney’s book on my shelves. When I went to look in Southampton’s library system to see about creating a library display for the one I go to, few of the books were available – this fact, whether intentionally coinciding with the award of not, highlighted how popular the books are. I keep finding my way back to the collection of Strout’s books; it’s one of those situations where it feels like everyone but you has read the author, and so many have recommended her. Having not read any of them yet I’ve no predictions but you can bet I’ll be reading at least some of them soon.

Have you read any of the shortlisted books, or other books by the authors? Do you have any predictions as to who will win?

July’s Curious Arts Festival

A photograph of Pylewell Park

Photography: images one and three copyright © James Gillam; second photograph copyright © Richard Hanson/

Summer 2016 – the heat was sweltering for a couple of days until the wind started. It was a very strange weekend in terms of weather, two days of basking in the sun and the next you were looking for a puffy jacket, but it was a fantastic few days that made for some great memories, and lead to the discovery of a few now favourite books.

The festival takes place in the grounds of Pylewell Park in the New Forest. Now in its fifth year, 2018’s dates are Friday 20th – Sunday 22nd July. The line-up is better than ever.

On the music side a big announcement recently made – John Newman will be playing a concert on the Saturday evening. And TV choir master Gareth Malone will be hosting a stunning Sunday evening featuring various pieces from his time as a choirmaster in The Choir and Military Wives.

A photograph of an audience clapping

In books and poetry, Lemn Sissay heads the line up, and Matt Haig, Kate Mosse, and Rupert Thomson will be in attendance; the latter was in conversion at Curious in 2016.

The comedy line-up is yet to be announced. (Last year saw Ed Byrne and Paul Tomkinson, and Zoe Lyons attended in 2016.) There is also always a lot of events for children.

Two whole days of events in one area where you can come and go as you please, and a well designed Friday late afternoon and evening that seems all day in itself. For what is available the price is very good. Early Bird Tickets Weekend Tickets are £103, with the full price Weekend Tickets set at £128. Family tickets can be purchased for between £191-279, depending on when you book them. Tickets for children are £23 for the whole weekend and under 5s are free.

The ticket prices include camping costs – you can park your camper van or pitch your tent at the campsite which reaches from just beyond the estate’s garden wall to the river’s edge. Your trip from bed to breakfast in the morning is between 30 seconds and a few minutes. If you’d rather your accommodation is set up for you you can glamp in a luxury bell tent or hire a VW camper.

A photograph of people eating at a dining table on the lawn

Food on site provides all three meals of the day. Companies currently confirmed include Cheeky Burger, The Green Grill (vegan options), Pad + Sen for your noodle fix, Juma for Iraqi street food, Savage – sea food, and Purbeck Ice Cream. There will be a couple of coffee companies in tow.

And the cherry on top? You can bring the dog.

For full details, tickets, and T&Cs please see the Curious Arts website.

Do you have plans for the summer?


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