Sometimes I ask myself, what have I been doing all my life? The years fly by and I hardly seem able to account for them – especially as I have two books desperately late in being delivered, and my writing routines seeming derailed, with everything else getting in the way. But I remind myself that writers live – and it’s life that gets in the way – and so it should – and life has to be lived, and life is the inspiration behind writing – so long as, of course, the routine can be clawed back to get it all down.
So I’ve written articles, short stories, plays, myths and legends – which all felt like displacement activity – preventing me from making progress with my two undelivered books, sometimes only achieving a sentence in a day or a paragraph (not counting the hundreds and thousands of words I’ve thrown out.) Yes – some books are like that: some leap almost fully formed as Athena did from the thigh of Zeus, others are squeezed out in a totally different time scale like dripping water that gradually becomes a stalactite or stalagmite. And that brings me to a project incredibly dear to my heart:
Alexander the Great: Man, Myth or Monster
I started writing this book in 2004. My construct was to follow Alexander’s conquest from Macedonia to India and back to Babylon where he died. Remembering that his was an army on foot and horseback, marching day by day for ten years, having to stop and camp each night, light their fires forage, hunt, cook and eat. At the heart of my project was that his conquest should reflect a multicultural journey as they moved from one country to another, one culture and religion to another, hearing stories on the way told by their camp fire storyteller.
I finished the book on time. It should have been out years ago. But it’s all my fault. In my idealism to produce a book which really reflected the spirit of the times, I felt the illustrations didn’t work. All I could do was cry, “Stop!” And they stopped. And we all stopped. When the shock horror had died away after a couple of years, we agreed to try again and find an illustrator who we could all agree on. We found one: David Parkins. No sooner had we chosen him, he had decided to move to Canada. No sooner had he agreed to do the book, like me and my present unfinished projects, he began a long, long, slow process of delivering the pictures. No doubt, like me, he felt it was a drip drip drip. But now there seemed to be no hurry. What if it was taking ten years? What mattered was to get it right – and I thought he was indeed, getting it right.
Now here we are in 2011, and suddenly there’s a little flurry of progress. Walker
Books are intending to produce Alexander as an ebook first, without the illustrations, and then by 2012 a hard copy with the illustrations. Hooray!
In the meantime, I wrote and published “The Robber Baron’s Daughter,” which didn’t really get much attention, even though I thought it was rather relevant being about human trafficking, and a girl who has to make the discovery that her beloved father was at the root of it all. Oh well. You win some you lose some.
I have always loved writing plays – ever since I was a child. As for so many children, dressing up and acting is one of the most imaginative and playful things a child can do. My young two year old granddaughter (yes – that was another piece of creation on my daughter’s part that joyfully interrupted my writing routines) is already acting out her books: already saying those almost inherently human words “You be Peter Pan and I’ll be Tiger Lily” or “You be Snow White and I’ll be the Witch.”
I have written 2 plays for the Polka Theatre: Monkey in the Stars, based on my version of Rama and Sita, and Just So, a play incorporating some of the Just So stories by Kipling. I also wrote a play for a Prince’s Trust project called A from the Desert Came Singer – again, loosely adapted from one of my short stories. The brief was a play about the environment.
Then came Shakespeare!
I got involved with the Schools Shakespeare Company – a charity bringing Shakespeare to schools and youth groups. I was asked to reduce “Measure for Measure” down to 40 minutes – which I did and, in the process got to love this extraordinary play. I saw a moving production given by the National Youth Theatre.
It is an ongoing project hoping to produce a kind of Olympian torch of non-stop Shakespeare throughout the world, being performed in the run up to the Games in 2012.
That led to me writing another play for the NYT about Razia Sultan, a woman in the C11 India, daughter of the ruling Turkish Slave dynasty, who briefly took the throne after her father’s death. It was a thrilling project for me, teaching me so much about a rather obscure period in Indian history while extricating an extraordinary story about an extraordinary woman.
Back to Shakespeare. A proposal to produce “All’s Well that Ends Well” within an Indian context was another fascinating project I was asked to do by Tamasha – an Asian theatre company. We’re used to seeing Shakespeare produced in all sorts of periods and backgrounds, sometimes with varying results, but once I got my teeth into this, I felt that of all the plays I could think of by Shakespeare, this one was eminently suitable for adapting to an Indian setting.
Ripples from the success of Coram Boy which won the Whitbread Children’s Award
in 2000 continued to roll in. It was successfully adapted by Helen Edmundsen for the stage at the National in 2005/6, had a dash at Broadway but didn’t make it, had a Hollywood film option which, even though it had a script by Alan Parker didn’t make it, lay low for awhile, and then is having another little flurry of activity, being now optioned by John Hay and Impact Films. But the nature of film is that so many don’t make it – but having experienced the delays with Alexander – who knows – this might make it.
While this was rumbling on, I did a Radio 4 adaptation of Coram Boy as their Classic Serial last Christmas and may be about to adapt Kim for the Classic serial – a book I value very highly.
In the meantime, Tom Morris, who steered Coram Boy through to production at the National, and who is now Artistic Director of the Bristol Old Vic, is reviving Coram Boy to be produced at Christmas. Melly Still, its original director, is directing it as a community play involving children, local choirs and professionals.
Many schools and youth groups have produced Coram Boy bringing their own creativity to it with exciting results – not least a group from the Bristol University Drama Department, who did a terrific production of it earlier this year in both Bristol and London. Its talented directors……. are getting involved with the Bristol Old Vic production.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT ……
As my granddaughter asks?
Every author has to get used to the grief of seeing their books go out of print, and we go on to fight for the books we believe in and try to find other publishers. Thank goodness the books of mine which I would rescue from a fire, “The Surya Trilogy” is still available, and its first book, “The Wheel of Surya” continues to be under option as a film – its fortunes rising and falling. They even got the ship for the journey across the ocean from India to England, but still lost the last tranche of budget at the eleventh hour. That’s movies for you!
A book which I found was most widely read in schools was “Grandpa Chatterji, now out of print, but which could have a future with another publisher if I can write a fourth in the series. And I will, I will; I always wanted to; I have already started it, as I would be deeply saddened to see them disappear completely.
This year, Walker Books have taken three of my books which are being republished:
Three Indian Princesses, Three Indian Goddesses and Danger by Moonlight.
Two new publications are: stories from the The Panchatantra which I have called “School for Princes” because they were written to educate young Indian princes into the arts of ruling, law and warfare. I have embedded the stories into stories which I have originated, about the princes themselves. (Frances Lincoln August 2010)
The other is a book of Tales from India. Set of Hindu myths and legends, fabulously illustrated by Amanda Hall. (Pub Templar Aug 2010)
I shall be talking about these books in Edinburgh, Bath and Cheltenham.
BUT what exercises my mind the most is finishing those two books which are way past their delivery dates. I must return to the days when I first started writing: a routine which takes me to my desk, with no phone, no email access, no siren calls, no distractions whatsoever, and just do it.