Mary's musings

Mary Hoffman, author of over 90 children's books, including the Stravaganza series and Amazing Grace, has begun a web journal which will be updated roughly once a week. You can read more on

Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Writer's Week

I checked the copy-edits on City of Ships in the first two days of this week, having had a scare that my copy-editor had taken them into the Labour Ward with her (she practically did!). As always, I had been working on another book since so it was strange to see it again. But satisfying.

On Wednesday I finished chapter 11 of the adult novel I'm currently writing and used Thursday and Friday for chapter 12. But I couldn't have done this without the planning work I did on the Oxford Tube on the way into London at the end of last week. I re-titled all the chapters and worked out how to distribute the plot over the second half of the book. I'm now in hope of writing six more chapters before we go to Athens in just over three weeks.

There won't be much time to work on the weekends as tomorrow we have a family birthday get-together and next Sunday a naming ceremony for my two little nephews. And last week my niece in New Yor had a baby girl, making me a Great Aunt for the first time; that sounds extremely dignified and grown-up. I hope I can live up to it.

Among the fanmails I answered this week was one from a woman in America whose brother I had dedicated a book to once and who was now about to become a father! I remembered him well.

Troubadour got a nice review in the Times from Amanda Craig today. So, editing one book, writing another, reading reviews of a third and answering e-mails about others - that's a writer's life.

I've been reading a book on the credit crunch and read the text of Jerusalem but must now do reviews for the Guardian of three books in two weeks and they haven't arrived yet!

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

2 Phaedras ( or possibly three)

Well, I went to Jerusalem and Phèdre on successive days and have been thinking of both of them ever since.

Jez Butterworth's play was a revelation - the first thing I've seen for ages that was totally unpredictable and unusual. I would go further and say it was the Look Back in Anger for the 21st Century, only much better written and with a far more sympathetic protagonist. The combination of Butterworth's exuberant, Joycean turn of language with the absolutely staggering performance of Mark Rylance as Johnny "Rooster" Byron, would have made it unmissable even without the very strong ensemble from a cast that included Mackenzie Crook as Ginger, the aspirant DJ.

Byron is an immensely charismatic figure, Falstaffian, a lord of misrule, whose tall tales are completely believable as they are told, even to a sceptical audience of mainly young punters who come to him for cheap or free booze and drugs. As my companion and I agreed, he would be a nightmare as a neighbour, but as a character he was mesmerising. And not amoral; he had his own standards and was actually hiding fifteen-year-old Phaedra Cox to protect her from an almost certainly abusive stepfather.

Johnny is about to be evicted by Kennet and Avon Council, from the copse in Rooster's Wood where he has illegally lived in his run-down old caravan for years. Somewhere along the way he (now fifty) has fathered a six-year-old son and by his own boasts, shagged most of the local female population. Byron, like his namesake, is a celebrity and a "legend in his own lunchtime."

He used to be a daredevil stuntman, jumping his bike over lines of buses, until the day he "died." The Flintock Fair in Wiltshire was his favourite showcase and it's Fair Day again today, St George's Day, during this play, which observes the classical unities of time and space.

But no summary of the plot conveys the importance of Jerusalem. The virtuosity of the language soars above the low mimetic vehicle chosen. Byron is the one in touch with legendary England, who can make you believe in heroic ancestors and long-forgotten giants. But that flag of St George on the curtain makes you uneasy. One of Byron's young followers, who works in an abattoir, killing 200 cows a morning before lunch, feels uncomfortable the minute his bike takes him over the border into Berkshire and is quite happy to hear that an old woman has been kicked to death for her scratchcard once he realises she's "not local" but from Wales.

Dave's kind of chauvinism would almost certainly lead him to vote BNP - if he could be arsed to vote at all. And Byron simply doesn't recognise politics and rules. I do hope the play gets a West End revival so that more people can see it; trust me - it and Rylance are going to win prizes, shinier than a fairground goldfish in a bag.

So Monsieur Racine had a lot to live up to. I'd read Phèdre at university and remembered the line that everyone does - "C'est Vénus toute entière à sa proie attachée" which is rendered in the Ted Hughes translation as "Venus has fastened on me like a tiger." I suppose Hughes should know. But I felt the whole production suffered under Nick Hytner's direction from not deciding whether the acting was going to be naturalistic or more stylised and declamatory.

Helen Mirren in the title role had opted for the latter - with much clutching of the stomach and hair - while her husband Theseus when he showed up, for the former. This was reflected in the dress, which was just about modern for the women in a sort of floaty Hampstead Bazaar/Sahara kind of way but put the men into contemporary battle fatigues.

There were some problems with the for the most part exemplary translation, which I haven't discovered whether to attribute to Hughes or Racine himself. Hippolytus's Amazonian late mother is referred to as both Antiope and the more familiar Hippolyta - which is just muddly - and Phèdre describes Medea as her sister. Her sister? Phaedra was the daughter of Minos and Pasiphae; Medea the daughter of the King of Colchis.

But when Theseus says that calling upon Poseidon to destroy his son was an "error of judgment" the jarring management-speak has to be Hughes' own. And why is it "Phèdre" "Theramène," "Ismène" but Hippolytus, Theseus and not "Hippolyte," "Thesée"? Some scansion issue?

It seemed so narrow - "the tedious old baggage banging on about fancying her stepson" as I felt when I came out, even though Mirren gave a performance which has been much admired. I missed the richness and variety of Shakespeare, even of Jez Butterworth. I looked at my watch a few times in the two hours that the tragedy ran continuously and never for a moment believed in the characters - unlike at the Royal Court.

In the cast list was an ad for Hans Werner Henze's new opera "Phaedra" in January so maybe I'll run round this story one more time.

All other news must wait till next week.

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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Jam and (almost) Jerusalem

Last Sunday we harvested many kilos of plums from our fruitful tree and yesterday I managed to turn about half of them into jam before they all fermented. But there are more to come. Nature is either prodigal or very stingy. And we can't tell which it's going to be. As with writers - are you going to be in the Joseph Heller, Harper Lee, J D Salinger league or more like Anthony Trollope? (I shan't mention Barbara Cartland).

I'm definitely more of a Trollope (we are talking quantity, not quality, you understand, so I'm not trying to compare myself with one of my favourite novelists. Perhaps I should just say I'm a plum tree rather than a damson or wisteria, as far as analogies with our garden are concerned) I've been saying I've written "over 90" books for some time now but I must keep an eye on it, lest I pass my century without noticing.

The thing is: some of themwere quite short.

I'm thrilled that through the machinations of middle daughter I have tickets next Friday for Jerusalem at the Royal Court and will report on it next week.

Also thrilled to discover an Internet site where I can watch the Palio live. I saw the Prova Generale tonight and it was just like being back in the Campo. Lupa won without its ruder (="scosso") who had been chucked off, along with Pantera's jockey, right at the start. I like it that it's the horse who wins, not the rider.

I've been reading YA novels for my other blog but have also started a book on the credit crunch (research for adult novel) and The Unicorn Road.

And I herad Stravinsky's Apollo from the Proms. I wish it was still called Apollon Musagete but it was still divine.

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Saturday, August 08, 2009

Tweet-tweets of a techno-mum.

I am at last a signed-up member of Twitter, where I am @MARYMHOFFMAN. I couldn't be @maryhoffman because someone had taken that label. Guess what her name was? So at least she had some excuse, unlike the person who took the User Name maryhoffman over on Facebook. She had a COMPLETELY different name, not even beginning with the same initials. I sent her a private message asking why she had chosen to use my name rather than hers but she didn't reply.

So I complained to Facebook, and much to my surprise, I am now allowed my own name!

Very confusing this cyberlife of mine.

I am going to blog about Tender Morsels as the Book Maven, over on

You might notice this is a slightly different address from the one I was using before; that's because my techno-daughter took me in hand and transferred all the past posts and comments over (the old address was confusing) and put an automatic redirect on. I had to do the links again by hand - all 20 of them.

But I joined Twitter all on my own and when I told same daughter, she offered to set up an automatic feed for my Tweets to appear in my Facebook status. "Done." I boasted. "And set them up to appear on the Book Maven blog too."

"Then I have nothing more to teach you, Young Jedi," said she. "You are officially a techno-mum"!

I am halfway through chapter 9 of the adult novel and it's really beginning to feel like a book. But the City of Ships final copyedits will come at the end of next week and pull me off it again.

I've seen all the episodes so far of the new season of Midsomer Murders - and they are hilarious! Two hours of very slow storytelling each Wednesday. Actually this week's was quite good and even a bit nasty, to vary the pace. Last week's I think was all cricket and the first one all golf but this was about art forgeries, varieties of pig and fly-fishing. Absolutely addictive and I love the theramin in the theme music.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Publication Day!

This post is going to be mainly about the production of As You Like It at Stratford, but I couldn't let today pass - 3rd August 2009 - without mentioning that it is publication day for Troubadour! UK jacket shown on left, It comes out in the US in a couple of weeks with a different look.

If you aren't a writer reading this, you probably think publication days are full of flowers and parties but it isn't like that. I did whinge a bit on Facebook and then got sent lots of congratulatory messages and even an electronic card with virtual champagne and balloons but the day itself has been much like any other.

I have wasted too much time on Social Networking sites, tried to dislodge cats from my lap and reinstate the laptop, written and received e-mails and done the shopping. Oh and I had a swim first thing but that's a Monday morning ritual not a publication day one. My lovely agent DID remember and send an e-mail though, as did one of my dedicatees.

It's funny: you have this date in your mind for so long, in relation to edits, copy edits, blurbs, press releases etc and then, by the time it actually comes along, you can't believe that no-one but you, your family, agent and publisher, have seen it till now. And by then you have written another book - two in my case - and are working on yet another.

Now, As You Like It. We went to the RSC production at Stratford, directed by Michael Boyd, who is RSC Director and mastermind of the marvellous Histories that domianted last year and much of the year before. Katy Stephens was a very good Rosalind, especially as Ganymede, and Richard Katz (Touchstone) and Forbes Masson (Jacques) were ourstanding in parts that often suffer from our over-familiarity with them.

Masson in particularly, who made quite an impression on us in the Histories, proved able to sing in an eery falsetto. But JonJo O'Neill was very disappointing as Orlando (and he's a great actor) and the production itself was distracting and annoying.

They started off in Elizabethan dress - puzzingly in inky black at the court, since no-one had died - then transmuted to more and more modern clothes in the "Forest" of Arden, ending up with Audrey in a white mini-skirt and four inch heels for her wedding. There was not a twig or leaf to suggest Arden - only an incongruous heap of straw.

I had been warned about the rabbit-skinning and -beheading business between Corin and Touchstone at the beginning of the second half, so used the handy A4 sized programme to hide behind.

But what was really disappointing was that Boyd seemed to equate pastoral with jolly idyllic romps and had determined to discover the "dark side" of the play by setting it in the bleak mid-winter. Couldn't he trust his source a bit more than that? Long-headed fellow that W. Shakespeare.

Talking of the dark side, I've started reading Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels. And have just finished Guantanamo Boy, which I'm reviewing for Armadillo.

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