It’s funny where writing has led me. I’ve given tours in cemeteries and gone fossil hunting in the name of research. The Last Runaway drew me into the seemingly tame world of quilts. Not so tame, it turns out. Quilting has led me into a prison cell.
I am curating a quilt/art show for Danson House, a Georgian Mansion outside of London. It opens next month, when I will write more about it. One of the pieces for the exhibition is a quilt I commissioned from the UK charity Fine Cell Work, who teach prisoners how to sew, embroider, and do needlepoint. The prisoners make cushions, quilts and other handiwork, which are for sale on the FCW website. Have a look, it is a wonderful charity, and the merchandise is gorgeous.
The prisoners – mostly men, surprisingly – make a little money to save for their families or for when they get out. But even more importantly, the work gives them a sense of purpose and pride. I have visited prisons four times now, and each time I leave with a feeling of wonder at how stitching can have such a therapeutic effect.
The quilt for the show is now complete. It is called Sleep Quilt and is made up of squares prisoners designed exploring their conflicted feelings about sleep. Here it is:
You might think sleep would be a balm in prison, and certainly some prisoners use it to make their sentences pass more quickly. However, many more suffer from broken sleep or insomnia, for prison atmosphere is hot, stuffy, noisy, and tense. FCW stitchers made squares depicting their hopes, their sorrows, their guilt. Like this one, possibly the square that makes me the saddest.
Two weeks ago I went to prison to pick up the Sleep Quilt from “John,” who had hand quilted 10 hours a day for a month so that it would be ready for the show. This was in between bouts of pumping iron! It’s funny, you’d think he would be teased for doing something “feminine” like sewing, but actually he is well-respected on his wing for his work. I spent a little time in his cell, looking through photos of some of the beautiful quilts he’s made:
(this and subsequent prison photos taken by Isabella Panattoni from Fine Cell Work)
I gave John a little gift to thank him:
Then we had a kind of ceremonial handover of the Sleep Quilt:
I also met some of the other guys who had made squares for the quilt.
They were clearly really proud of it. FCW volunteers told me the project brought out a lot of issues, and had a strong impact on the prisoners, who don't get much chance to express feelings about things like sleep.
And me? I cried.
January 2014 - New Year, New Desk
Most New Year’s resolutions are about discipline and control. Eat less, exercise more, learn to do this, stop doing that.
I feel lucky that I have recently had a new desk made for me, and it is a beauty:
Cherry wood, burgundy matt formica, curves and cubby holes. Best of all, it has space for the computer but also for an area in which I can spread out and really write - because I still use pen and paper. There’s even a level above the desk and behind me where I can put all the stuff I’ve used during the day, so that the writing part remains clear. Does this mean I am going to be more productive? Will this desk give me discipline and control? I certainly hope so.
But I also know that it requires more than a new desk to get me to focus and write well. After all, I managed to write 5 novels on a nasty pine table that was the wrong height and too small, so that I usually ended up working on a hard-cover book in my lap with my feet propped up on the radiator. Really what I need to do is to turn off the internet connection so that I stop messing around online. That is my work New Year’s resolution.
My other two resolutions are much more fun: I am going to go for a walk every day, and I am going to take ice skating lessons.
Happy New Year!
I'm relieved to report that I am quieting down for a while. No more book tours or readings or interviews. No more talking; I'm tired of hearing myself. Now as the hibernation months approach (at least in the Northern Hemisphere), I'm going to focus on the written word.
Of all the places I've been and all the quilts I've seen this year (The Last Runaway being in part about quilts), the one that struck me most was this:
Pine Winter was made by a young quilter called Molly Upton in the early 1970s. Tragically she took her life at the age of 23. I find the colors, the tone, the geometry, the subject (trees - love 'em), all work together perfectly. She has done with fabric what I am always trying to do with words. Thank you to the New England Quilt Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts for displaying it in a temporary exhibition. It was a highlight of my recent trip to the US.
Busy last month! I've been doing events in the UK for the paperback publication of The Last Runaway, sure. But I've also started serious work on the next book, both writing and research. It's apple season, and some of the book involves apples, so I got up close and personal with apples at Lathcoats Farm in Chelmsford, Essex.
One of my fellow pickers was Lauren, who studies English at university. She was a little surprised by me turning up in the orchard! I know, I should have been at my desk, writing. But research is a lot more fun.
The world is turning faster and faster. A mere six months after hardback publication, the paperback of The Last Runaway is now out in the UK. (It comes out in paper in the US at the end of October.) Used to be a year between hardback and paperback, but ebooks seem to have changed all that. Does that mean I have to write faster too?
I should be publicising it, but instead I am going to share with you a photo:
This was taken in 1843, and there is speculation that the woman could be Mary Anning, heroine of my last novel Remarkable Creatures. Here is an article about the photo:
I would love it to be so, but most women in 1843 would have dressed like that on the beach. I hope we find out more!