Writing is a journey, both imaginary and physical. My first book took me to the Arctic to 'catch the colours' of the Northern Lights. Then I hunkered down to catch the wind-blown voices of polar explorers on Shackleton's 1914-17 Endurance expedition. More recently I'm obsessed by space: the race, the rockets, the final frontier.

Hear a BBC Radio Leicester interview about my space poetry at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03wfpyp
Explore my digital narrrative PHILAE'S BOOK OF HOURS, published by the European Space Agency, at:

My prose-poetry collections FIREBRIDGE TO SKYSHORE
and MAD, HOPELESS & POSSIBLE are both published by Original Plus Press at:

Contact me for signed copies or bookings at:

Visit the writers' development service I co-run at: https://www.facebook.com/TheWritersShed/

About Me

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Leicester, East Midlands
As a storyteller, my work crosses boundaries of myth, science, history and spoken word. It has been presented in the British Science Museum, Ledbury Poetry Festival, National Space Centre and the European Space Agency website. In 2014 I ran a digital residency on WW1 for 14-18NOW and Writing East Midlands. I teach Creative Writing at De Montfort University and have experience of leading school events, workshop tuition and mentoring. In addition, I co-run The Writers' Shed, a service for writers, at: https://www.facebook.com/TheWritersShed/

Saturday, 22 May 2010

A Door into Story

If we could open the door into a writer's mind, what would that be like? Perhaps like pushing past those fur coats in the wardrobe and catching the icy blast of Narnia. Or squeezing down that dark rabbit hole into a disturbing surreal wonderland. Or like Salley Vickers' talk to Leicester Writers' Club last Thursday - where we rambled through a labyrinth lit by church frescoes and Renaissance paintings, following a cunningly laid thread that took us back and back. A clue literally means a ball of yarn to lead us through the maze and Vickers has been following her own clues into the dark to stunning effect as a writer.

I know other writers were equally fascinated by her reflections on the creative process - see Rosalind Adams' excellent summary on her blog. Vickers is not only a highly successful novelist and Booker prize judge but also a very experienced and engaging speaker on such topics. She has understood very well that the writer too is a story and she charmed us with an account of her first novel at the age of nine, called 'A Door into Time' (was it?). In this fable, four orphaned children are packed off to live with a reluctant uncle and in his garden see a tortoise and a shaft of sunlight hitting a sundial which opens the door into another time. She tells us this story (surely Narnia-influenced in its beginning) contains all the elements that recur in her grown-up novels.

This thread lead off down a side-shaft to an intriguing account of her first novel Miss Garnett's Angel. A bizarre series of coincidences across different decades led to the impulse to write this novel: 'the experience of something in my past dovetailed with something in the present and that's how all my novels begin'. But I will jump to the story of her novel The Other Side of You which particularly struck me. Vickers found herself drawn to writing in a male voice for this one and her protagonist turned out to be a psychoanalyst, a discipline Vickers herself has practised. So far so good. The man's problem is his patient Elizabeth, a woman set on committing suicide who will not 'open up' either to the psychoanalyst OR the author. Vickers is actually a third of the way into writing this book and knows NOTHING about this reticent woman.

At this point, Vickers goes on a speaking tour of Australia and this gives her the opportunity to attend a series of lectures about 'What Happens when Two People sit in a Room and Do Therapy?' Listening to this, she has the image of two people walking along a road together. And she finds herself thinking of a very old and haunting story - the Road to Emmaus - in which two grieving disciples walk along a road and find a third joins them. Of course they fail to recognise this third figure and it's only later at the inn, when he breaks bread, that they see who is on 'the other side of you' and he vanishes. Vickers has likened this apparition of the third reality to the healing process of therapy.

But to follow my clew - Vickers returned home with this insight and an unfinished novel. As she so often does at this point, she wandered into the National Gallery 'in a brown study' to pursue her thread. And found herself in front of Caravaggio's painting of 'The Road to Emmaus'. This painter turned out to be the missing piece and the silent woman's story now began to unlock. The novel gets finished - and is now waiting on my juicy 'To Read' pile.

And that is just one of the delightful and thought-provoking stories Vickers shared with us. Along the way, we mused on the Darwinesque survival of ancient stories like the Road to Emmaus and how they still chime in our consciousness. Or the connection between the visual arts and her inspiration for narratives. Or how an early love of poetry shapes her approach to editing prose - 'I always hear my books - the sound of the spoken voice is key to it'. I'm looking forward very much now to reading the novel but the threads of her talk will be leading me down sideways for many days to come, I think.

And before I close this rambling blog, can I thank the Abbey Park Over-50's Club for the welcome they gave me on Wednesday when I presented my own talk on 'The Science and Mythology of the Northern Lights'? All were entranced by stories of the aurora, my new mini-projector worked a treat and I was surprised by the gift of a sketch of me in action and a Caramac at the end. My compliments to the artist Kanti. Art and chocolate is always a winning combination!


  1. So sorry to have missed this, so I appreciated being able to read about it. I read most of her first novel and was disappointed with it, but this one sounds worthwhile. Also, BTW, I like the blue on blue of your blog, it's very easy on my poor eyes. Dana Bagshaw

  2. Thank you for the link, Siobhan. I too am still thinking about the way she uses ancient literature and art to inspire her writing. It gave us a lot of material to ponder on.

    Can I also add that I agree with Dana. The blue on blue is a lovely combination.