Of Plays and Novels


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NovelYesterday morning, over tea and seemingly out of the blue, my mother asked when am I going to write another novel.

“I think you miss it. I think I even miss it myself. So, when are you writing a new one?”

Which is, I’ll admit, a very good question. I have published three novels in Italy, and written a few more – but that was several years ago. Then I went back to my first writing love – theatre, and never looked back.

I love the constant quest for maximum effectiveness, the need to convey everything through dialogue and action, the effort of compressing a world, a century, an epoch in just the way people speak. I love to work with a company and write around their needs – likely the best way to learn what will or won’t work onstage. And most of all, I love to see my writing come to life on a stage, to be surprised at the new colours it acquires through other people’s interpretation of it, to sit in the dark house or backstage, and feel the audience react… Yes – writing for the stage is a complex form of happiness.

And yet…

And yet it may be that Mother is right. It may be that I miss novel-writing. The long and painstaking research, the complex planning and plotting, the long-term engagement with characters and setting, the broader scope, the large population, the room for character study, multiple plots and slow change… scripts

Writing a play is like opening a window. Writing a short story is jewellery-making. Writing a novel means to build a world – and it may be that I miss building worlds. Actually, the last few times I tried, it didn’t go entirely well. I have three half-finished first draft and one complete sleeping somewhere in my hard-disk. One of them I ransacked for the glimmering bits, which I then made into a monologue – a really good one, if I say so myself. I’ts unlikely that I’ll ever pick it up again. The other two, though… They are stories I like, with characters I like – and what I have written isn’t bad. Both still need a good deal of work, and each was set aside in favour of a play. On the face of it, my playwright self has swallowed the novelist whole…

And yet. I really, really do love playwriting to distraction – but lately I’ve been feeling a sort of homesickness for novel-writing. I want to try again. I miss the peculiar set of joys and sorrows of a novel-in-progress.

Isn’t it annoying, the way mothers tend to be always right?




Playing Games


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shakespeare-2bActually, one game.

The one they play on the Shakespeare in Action Blog.

They start from some outlandish sort of What if, such as What if Shakespeare ran a Halloween shop?, and then answer it by selecting and arranging speeches from all over the Canon… Here is the Halloween shop one. And here several more. It’s silly, creative, very funny – and with the right company, I can see it as a perfect parlour game.



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RTEmagicC_western_district_01.jpgIt’s not as if I’d never seen it before, but now I have stumbled across it twice in a month, and always about Verona. Medieval Verona – or rather Romeo and Juliet’s Verona, which means rather generic Middle Ages, but Middle Ages nonetheless.

So, when in a novel I read about Benvolio and Mercutio strolling through Via Mazzini, I very nearly choked on my tea – because Giuseppe Mazzini happens to be a XIXth father of Italian Unification, very unlikely to have had a street named after him at any point of the Middle Ages. And then I am fairly sure that Ponte della Vittoria, that is to say Victory Bridge, must have had some other name before WW1. And there were more like these: clearly the author did her research on a modern map of Verona, never bothering to check her street names…

And yesterday, while googling shakespearean images, I found this Czech boardgame set “in Prince Escalus’ Verona”… nice idea – except, the first thing I notice in the illustration of the board was a street named Viale Pascoli. Not only Viale , that is “Avenue”, is most definitely not a Medieval street type designation, but Giovanni Pascoli is, again, a XIXth Century poet. And next to poor Pascoli were other modern-sounding odonyms… Again, the game designer clearly relied on a modern map of Verona.

What can I say? It makes me unhappy. No matter how I am enjoyng the novel – or the game – an anacronistic odonym, just like any other anacronism , will jettison me out of the story. All the more because it is really not all that hard to get yourself a map of Medieval Verona – or, at the very least, to check street names on Wikipedia to find out whether there could be such a place in your chosen epoch…

The past is a foreign place, remember? They do things differently. The past in a foreign place is doubly foreign – and call me peevish if you like, but when you choose to set your story twice abroad, in time and place, there is no way around it, but to be doubly careful, doubly accurate, and double-double check your maps, streets, poets and avenues.




StampMy father was a stamp collector. When I was very young, he tried to share the hobby with me – and failed. All I remember are endless sessions sitting at a table covered in green felt, being scolded for breathing too hard on the silly little paper squares…

Usually Dad knew how to grasp my interest, so I can’t imagine why he never thought of really showing me what the silly little squares depicted… Even as a child, I would have loved history- themed stamps, or literary ones, like the British stamps from the collection of James M. Hutchisson, to be found at this link.

It’s interesting to see which books and authors are chosen, and how they are portrayed to go traveling around on letters and postcards.



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tennyson-reading-aloud-in-a-gladeAd Alta Voce.

If it were a ship, you could call me a plank-owner, because I helped create it, and was there since the first day. Or night. Or whatever.

It’s not a ship, of course, but it isn’t a book club either, and yet lots of people like to call it that – so I suppose I could call it a ship if I really wanted. Not that I do.

Ad Alta Voce means just “Aloud”, and we are not a book club, in that we don’t all read the same book and then discuss it. What we do is set a theme, find novels, excerpts, poetry, newspaper articles, song lyrics that relate to the theme or illustrate it – and then we meet and read aloud our findings. Typically, what emerges is a handful of wildly different takes on the same subject, some lively discussion, and a few new titles for one’s reading list…

reading aloudFor instance, we had a school-themed night, last May, and the reading choices ranged from Saint-ExupĂ©ry to the memoirs of Mascagni‘s daughter, from Guareschi to Judith Kerr, from Fred Uhlman to Frank McCourt, to Rudyard Kipling… While in June, “Vice, Sin & Transgression” brought us, among others, Dante, Anthony Burgess, William Somerset Maugham.

It is great fun, one discovers wonderful books, it can be done at virtually no cost – but what fascinates me is to see how very different readers will put their own spin on the theme. I love the unexpected associations, the questions they spark, the discussion, the thinking aloud…

readaloudAnd let us be clear: it wasn’t all smooth sailing from night one – we made mistakes, we made experiments, we found our format by trial and error, and we are most definitely still working on it. We grow as we go – a good thing in itself, I believe? The local Book Club Association doesn’t seem to think so. They’d like to absorb us, tame us, lead us back to more orthodox ways – but so far we have managed to smile, nod, and glibly persevere in our innocuous madness.

Will it work indefinitely? Who knows? We’ll start again in October, but meanwhile we are having a special, open-air summer session, with books, a huge telescope, and the equivalent of a night-picnic. We did it last year, with “Stars” as our theme, and it was magical. I remember reading Cyrano’s ur-space travel fantasies from Rostand‘s play, and seeing a breath-taking, golden, crescent moon…Frigate

It’s lovely, it’s not a book club – and I wonder if it isn’t more of a ship than I thought, after all… Why, if Emily Dickinson is to be trusted, it might even be a flotilla.

The Soldier’s Burden



uniformset1Quite literally – as depicted by photographer Thom Atkinson in thirteen inventory-photos of military kits from various ages between Hastings and Afghanistan.

There is a poignancy, as well as historical interest, in the carry-around world of a soldier: weapons and letters from home, landmines and sewing kits, black powder and playing cards… It is fascinating to see how things change (or don’t change that much) through the centuries.

The kits were reconstructed with the help of historians, reenactors and collectors, and are shown in a great picture gallery on the Telegraph website.



The Trouble with Ideas



IdeasSo, imagine you are in the middle of… everything.

Pulling one of those translation stunts for a foreign university, and setting up not one, but two new little websites for two new projects, and studying for a talk you’re giving next Friday, and editing a couple of stories, and designing a conference-cum-reading together with a bunch of actors, and conjuring up a project for another, quite distinct bunch of actors, and minding your two blogs, and launching a new association you’ve been blackmailed into, and translating an old monologue of yours, and praying that another dormant commission won’t wake up just now…

Yes, imagine battling daily with all of that – plus several family members and lifelong friends urging you to take a vacation, because really, how can you not find a week to go to the seaside? – and feeling in turn thrilled and a tad overwhelmed, and failing to return library books because you thought you had already returned them…

Are you imagining? Yes? Good.

And then, in the middle of all this, what must happen, but a new notion for a monologue? One you really like. One that will let you explore an interesting character with a good twist to him, and experiment one or two techniques you’ve been wanting to try…

And no, you don’t, but don’t have the time for this. There is all the rest – and you are rather short of breath as it is – but ideas… oh, ideas! Ideas won’t let you sleep, won’t let you work. They’ll nag, and shout, and elbow their way to the front while you research the correct denominations of Ukrainian monastic orders. They’ll hijack your mind during meetings, when you should be listening. They’ll force you to whip out your notebook and take notes in the middle of the night. They’ll try to surface in your conversation at awkward moments, because that’s how ideas work.

And perhaps you think you know how to deal with the little pest, on the grounds of long and sometimes painful experience. You take copious notes whenever the idea starts pestering you, in the hope that it will be assuaged by your display of interest and offering of ink and pages.

Sometimes it works – you put it on paper, and live it there, and next time it rear its head, you will be ready and it will have grown.

At other times, though, all the notes in the world accomplish nothing except whetting the thing’s appetite for more, more, more…

Which is why, in the end, you find yourself opening a new Scrivener file at four in the morning, and giving up. Giving in: Come on, you bloody pest, and do your worst. Good thing is, when the bloody pest is this unquenchable, its worst tends to be worth the pain. And the lost sleep. And the occasional moment of fury. And the look in everybody’s eyes, when they realise you are writing in your head – again.

And not that I am complaining, but really, when people ask where do you find ideas, ain’t it a lark – considering?







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Image from page 24 of "The battle of Cann...

Exactly two thousand two hundred and thirty years ago, near the city of Cannae, Romans and Carthaginians were facing each others, ready to fight one of the greatest battles in history. Well, they didn’t know that – or at least, the Romans didn’t. Sure in their strenght and greater numbers, consuls Aemilius Paulus and Varro were confident that they’d finally give the Carthaginian usptart what was his.

But Hannibal? He must have known the battle he had designed was a tactical masterpiece. Certainly, he didn’t expect it to be his last great victory in the field… In the end, Cannae was his masterpiece and the high point of his flaming parable, and part of his intangible legacy – considering his tactics are still studied in military schools all over the worlds… Who knows, how would he like to know that in spite of losing his war, he won some sort of immortality for himself?

Oh, never mind me. I’m more than a little in love with the man – I’ve even written a novel about him. Well, two novels, technically. And a play, which I’m going to rewrite, because… because. And there are at least a couple of stories and a monologue still to be written…

And meanwhile, yes – today is the 2230th anniversary of Cannae, and here is a nice depiction of Cannae according to the BBC.

Song of the Summer Books


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6a011570c3de61970c0192aaa933ac970dI’ll confess I’m beginning to feel like taking a break, a vacation, a something…

Oh, I’m not going anywhere, not this summer. Too much work, too many projects, too many engagements, too many things to do. There is no conceivable way to do what I did last year: ten days in a little seaside hotel, writing and reading to my heart’s content, only interrupting myself for sleep, meals, and some nordic walking on the beach. I even had a lovely storm once, and sat up through half the night to watch the dark and angry sea… Very nice, on the whole, but when I realised there would be no chance for a repeat this summer, I just shrugged it off. Who needs vacations, I told myself.

But this was back in early June, and now is early August, and I’m not all that sure anymore.

It’s not that I miss the seaside – if anything, last year served as proof that I can live without the Adriatic, and that I like the literary notion of the sea much better than the thing itself – but… but.

There is a tiny pile of books, you see. One is John Masefield‘s Live and Kicking Ned. Then there are Rafael Sabatini‘s The Sea Hawk, Baroness Orczy‘s The Nest of the Sparrowhawk, and a couple of historical mysteries… All of them the sort of summer readings that are a vacation in and of themselves. Books that are the adult equivalent of an afternoon of glorious make-believe – you know the sort.

I came by them at different times through the last six or sevent months, and set them aside. For summer, I told myself. To pack in my bag when – if – I go anywhere. To give myself a treat if I go nowhere at all. A nice notion, don’t you think? Deck chairs in the garden, lemon popsicles, cricket-filled nights of reading in bed… Very nice.tyjtr

Except, there is no time. Days are too full to indulge – and frankly, there are far too many mosquitos to linger in the garden at all – and reading time is swallowed up by things I need to read for documentation… Which is all very interesting, but not at all restful, and… and yes, I’m really beginning to feel like that vacation now.

But I rather doubt I’ll have it… I’m beginning a summer course tomorrow, and a new translation job just rolled in, and I have a couple of deadlines looming, and then there is the Paper Stage project, and ten days of intense volunteer work await me at the end of August, and what remains of summer looks dreadfully short as it is. I very, very much doubt there’s going to be time for much. Perhaps one little book, if I try hard?

Ah well, Tiny Pile of Summer Books, what can I say? It would have been nice. Next year, perhaps.


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