“… there was something, something pretty terrible… Not just plain terrible. This was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it…” – Dorothy Parker (on turning fifty), The Middle or Blue Period.
Fifty is a big age. Neglected artist, Clair Harkin, tries to hide from it on the Greek Island of Symi. But, of course, she is discovered. Actually, it turns out quite well for a while – besides falling in the sea she falls in love and in lust. She also falls out badly with daughter, Jess, makes up – then starts the cycle again.
Back in England, the year of being fifty is filled with demands from her controlling mother in Florida, from her diva daughter and with the need to earn a living. And no word from her new lover. Clair swallows a lot of ‘raisins’, sweet and bittersweet, before she hits the next birthday. Will it be in England, Scotland, Florida or Greece? And with whom?
When Lynne McVernon described to me the storyline of Terrible With Raisins – her debut novel, available for Kindle (free on Kindle Unlimited) and in paperback – I knew I just had to read it. While I’m probably not quite as phobic about big birthdays as her heroine Clair, I spent my 50th in a helicopter over the Grand Canyon: I also spent my 60th in another helicopter, this time over Rio de Janeiro. Add a Greek island into the mix (I’ve told you before about my holidays in the 70s & 80s…)… well she didn’t need to ask me twice.
My review follows, but first I’m delighted to welcome Lynne to Being Anne to tell us more…
Welcome, Lynne – where did the idea for Terrible With Raisins come from?
An actor friend of mine went to Amsterdam for her fortieth birthday, saying that 1) if she went away for it she could come back and pretend it hadn’t happened and 2) she could leave all the **** of the last forty years there and start again. I thought it was a brilliant idea, did it myself (but went to Paris) and when the next big birthday loomed decided to write about a similar idea and set it in the beautiful island where I’d recently spent my honeymoon. By the way, other than that, it is not remotely autobiographical. Entirely fictitious!
How would you describe the book? I’m not a lover of slotting books into genres, but who do you think it would it appeal to?
It’s definitely not chick-lit. I have laughingly referred to it as ‘old boiler-lit’. It is largely an observation of relationships and attitudes, about recognising and grabbing opportunities. Writer friends have said it’s a ‘women’s interest’ novel. I did write it for a female readership but of the men I know who’ve read it none have had a problem identifying, so it does seem to have universal appeal.
Symi really is almost another character in the book, and really vividly drawn. Somewhere you know really well?
As I’ve said, we spent our honeymoon on Symi (the holiday was booked so we decided we may as well get married). My husband Martyn and I fell in love with the place, the beauty of the land and seascapes, that fabulous harbour, the friendly and welcoming people, the lifestyle (many British ex-pats live there), the history, the food… We’re friends with residents and other holidaymakers and have returned three times but have since fallen even more deeply in love with the island of Leros, another Aegean gem. Inspiration for a sequel, perhaps…
Tell me more about the striking cover…
I bought the image online and the cover was designed by a wonderful graphic artist, Joanna Cardwell. Tragically, Joanna died just after Christmas 2015 after a very brave stand-off with illness. I wish she could have known that the design won best book cover on Author Shout Cover Wars in April this year.
I know you’ve previously been a scriptwriter – and it shines through quite clearly in the dialogue. How different is the discipline – and craft – of writing a novel?
I was used to the discipline of scriptwriting (having to bear in mind what is practically possible, adhere to timings and structure) and thought it would be much easier to write a novel. Big mistake. I came badly undone writing Raisins through sloppy, repetitive, over-descriptive writing, causing innumerable rewrites. Following the experience, I would say that it probably is easier, in literary terms, to write a novel as there are few practical restrictions. But the danger is losing focus and becoming indulgent.
Had you always wanted to write fiction? And when you decided to do so, did you simply sit at your keyboard and write?
Writing has always been not just a love but a compulsion. My father was an amateur playwright and both parents always encouraged reading and writing. Two teachers at Hatfield Junior School in Lower Morden, Mr Barker and Mr Parkes, were very encouraging. I once won threepence for a story, there! I write at an Apple Mac instead of in an exercise book these days.
How has being part of Exeter Writers helped?
The cliché is true, writing is a lonely pursuit. I joined Exeter Writers on moving to Devon in 2014. It has been a very positive and supportive experience, meeting writers with different disciplines and levels of success. Everyone has something valuable – and often surprising – to share.
What does success look like for you? I know you made the decision to self-publish Terrible With Raisins, but do you hope for more – agent, contract, sports car, cottage in the country…?
Of many actors and students I worked with as a theatre director and drama teacher, only a small percentage were famous or found fame. ‘Success’ in the Arts is usually a combination of luck, talent and hard work, but not necessarily all three. I have no illusions about it. The reality is that very few people make a living from writing. I spent a lot of time and money sending my manuscript to agents with rejections the only response, mostly just a pro forma letter without even my name on it. Getting published is a genuine lottery, which is why I decided to self-publish. Yes, it would be great to have a wide readership and find fame and material success, but an agent is no guarantee of this. Fame? I’m not holding my breath.
How do you write? Are you fitting it round a busy life? What’s a typical writing day?
No such thing as a typical writing day for me. Life is generally chaotic – on good days, highly disorganised.
What writers do you particularly admire?
Edna O’Brien (Girl With Green Eyes and Girls in their Married Bliss) and Mervyn Peake (the Titus Groan Trilogy) were an influence in my teens. Before and after them, Dickens, Dorothy Parker (Terrible With Raisins is a quote from her short story The Middle or Blue Period), John Steinbeck, Doris Lessing, Iain Banks, David Mitchell, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Philip Pullman. My degree was English Literature, so there’s a long list.
And what’s next for you? Are you working on something new?
Naughtily, I have two novels in the pipeline (not supposed to have more than one, I’m told), in two different styles. One will probably have as long gestation period as Raisins (10 years). Their progress has been punctuated by short stories, mostly for competitions. I won a ‘Highly Commended’ in The Magic Oxygen Literary Festival this year with ADHD For Beginners (you’ll find it on my blog).
Thanks Lynne – and thanks too for providing the copy of the book for review. So, what did I think of Terrible With Raisins?
There was a lot I really liked about this book. I took to Clair immediately – much of the book’s story is told from her perspective, and in her voice, so it’s really quite important that you’re in her corner. She’s very real – faults and all, but they’re failings that any woman of a similar age will immediately recognise. Some of her internal dialogue really made me laugh, out of recognition and identification.
The first part of the book is all about the holiday in Symi to escape the dreaded birthday – the setting vividly described and its quirks and detail immediately recognisable to any fan of the Greek islands (I particularly liked The Shop of the Sullen Adolescents, and I swear I’ve met the boat driver with the monobrow and bad breath…and who hasn’t searched for a single pack of Silk Cut amid a sea of Marlboro?). It’s a great romp (Clair’s cabaret performance and the octopus incident will long linger in the memory), but also something rather more than that – there’s a real poignancy in Clair’s efforts to move on and excellent handling of her relationship with her teenage daughter, but the smile is never far away. I thought hearing the voices of Fraser and Howard worked really well too – sometimes telling the same story from their own very different perspectives. Was I convinced by Clair’s love interest? Yes, very much so – and hearing his internal dialogue really helped with that.
Returning home, the story changes quite considerably as Clair faces up to the realities of life – and there’s a lot there to handle. Her mother is a real piece of work, and having met her I could immediately understand why Clair found keeping in contact such a chore – the action moves to Florida for a while with a lovely mix of slapstick farce and a very touching examination of the fraught mother-daughter relationship. The developments with her daughter, however, didn’t entirely convince me – I think it might just have been one story line too many. Friend Sonn, though, was a great character – a bit Ab Fab Patsy, and a wonderful source for humour.
And talking about characters, I have to pay tribute to Old Gluefeatures Howard – he was simply wonderful, and reminded me so much of men I’ve (rather sadly) also known. I loved his take on things, and his distinctive pontificating voice – from the viewpoint of desperate old fart and Education Authority administrator – and, quite absurdly, grew to really like him and to wish him well with whatever life may bring.
I must say though that the storyline that enchanted me the most was that of Maggie – Clair’s aunt – in her Scottish croft. Her voice was crystal clear throughout, her story beautifully moving, and her interactions with local characters and family perfectly drawn. She moves into the forefront a little more later in the book, and I was delighted to see it and to learn more about her fascinating life story. The displaying of hidden pictures telling of a long-hidden past brought a little tear to my eye.
Do I have any criticisms? Yes, just a few. I thought the book was maybe a tad too long, with slightly more themes and back stories than were strictly necessary. The writing is strong, and the dialogue excellent – but the absence of attribution and quotation marks does sometimes make it difficult for the reader, with the need to flip back to see who’s talking. But overall I really did enjoy this one – and look forward to seeing what the author does next.
About the author
Following Art School, Lynne’s early career in theatre backstage in London’s West End led to meeting such theatre legends as Sir Ralph Richardson and Dame Celia Johnson. She was later awarded the Regional Theatres Trainee Directors’ Scheme bursary, training for two years then working as a director across the UK from Dundee Rep to the National Theatre, directing over 50 professional productions. Lynne has written original plays for adults and young people, dramatised Dickens and adapted plays for BBC Radio. She is a graduate of the University of Reading. Terrible With Raisins is her first novel.