It's officially summer in the northern hemisphere, but I'm looking back on an incredible spring: specifically 3rd April 2022, and the premiere of Girl with a Pearl Earring: The Opera at Zurich Opera House. That's right, an opera!

That novel about a Dutch painting is having a long and blessed life. When I wrote it back in 1998, I could imagine it as a film, a radio dramatization, even a play. But never did I expect it to become an opera.

The music is by Swiss composer Stefan Wirth, the libretto by Philip Littell. It's Stefan who got the ball rolling several years ago: when Zurich Opera House suggested he write them a new opera and asked what subject he wanted to do, he chose my novel! I owe him a great debt for his passion and determination.

It is a very modern opera, with music that is more textural than melodic. The orchestra is full of percussion making strange noises. The staging is minimalist, with a big lightbox revolving around. There's so little on stage that when you see a bucket, or a flower, or a chair, it becomes important.

There are 8 singers, all superb. Lauren Snouffer sings Griet, and what a part - she's on stage the whole time. And the eminent Thomas Hampson is Vermeer.

I was lucky enough to attend rehearsals early on, and director Ted Huffman was incredibly generous not only in allowing me into the room, but letting me speak and asking me questions! I loved watching the singers explore their parts and build the opera from the ground up.

And then, the premiere: a full house, friends and family in the audience, a buzz in the air. 

Vermeer and Griet in dress

Vermeer Catharina Griet

Vermeer Children

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I got to take a stage bow with composer Stefan Wirth!

The response to the opera has been remarkable, with both audience and critics loving it. Yes, it's minimalist stage, yes, the music is different and challenging. But the story is clear and recognisable, with characters you care about. I am thrilled. For a brief taste of what the opera looks and sounds like, here's a trailer:

The opera performances are over for now, but there are hopes that it will travel in the next few years to other opera houses. I will keep you posted!

 

Today is the 25th anniversary of the publication of my first novel, The Virgin Blue. Amazing to think so much time has passed! I've written 9 more books since and had many literary adventures all over the place. To celebrate this milestone, I've made a rough-and-ready video of a few highlights (with the help of an Elvis Costello soundtrack - I have made a donation to Help Musicians UK in thanks). Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

After 18 months of remaining in the UK, last month I finally managed to go to Venice, where my next novel takes place. It has been incredibly frustrating writing a story set in the most beautiful city in the world and not being able to go there! So I was thrilled - and sometimes overwhelmed - to have so much to see and do and absorb. I felt like a well that had run dry and was now refilling.

Speaking of wells, there is usually one in every courtyard in Venice. Here is a gorgeous one on Murano, the glass island just off Venice, where much of the book takes place, as it's about a family of glassmakers:

murano well

 You may know that I try to do the things my characters do so that I can describe it with more authenticity. So while in Venice, I made glass beads:

 TC bead making

 And I tried rowing a shrimp-tailed batela - kind of like a gondola but not as hard (it was still hard)!

 TC rowing

 Let me show you the real deal:

Venice gondola

It is almost impossible to take a bad picture in Venice. I don't know about WRITING about Venice, though. So many have gone before me, and avoiding clichés is hard...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where am I?

The literal answer is that I'm in Dorset, in southwest England. Normally we live in London, but many of the things that make it special - variety, diversity, theatre, restaurants, crowds, culture - we have not been able to enjoy this past year. And with lockdowns and high Covid numbers in cities, we've found it easier and safer to live the rural life, where social distance is the norm and we are surrounded by beauty.

But you are likely a reader and what you want to know is: where am I in the new novel? This morning I am outside of Santa Maria dei Miracoli, a jewel of a church in Venice. It is foggy and my heroine Orsola is discussing men with Klara, a character who is suddenly becoming more important. It is the 18th century, time of Casanova and Grand Tours and Carnival and a certain loucheness. Venice has gone from being the centre of European trade to a party town.

I'm a little over halfway through the novel, and that is always a dangerous time, as you will know from reading plenty of them. Often novels sag 2/3 of the way through. The place and the characters and the situation are all set up, and the ending is clear, but there's time to kill before we can get there. Sometimes writers add new characters or twists or subplots. Sometimes the story just...plods along. I am trying not to let that happen, but push my heroine Orsola into situations that deepen her character and our understanding of her, without it being unnecessary filler. Hard. Next time you read a novel, keep an eye out and see what the writer does at this crucial point.

So, here I am, literally writing in Dorset. Cat and tea optional. Happy summer!

TC writing Plush

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My writing has come along slowly this past year, for obvious reasons. A few authors have written whole books during the pandemic. Most of us, however, have been plodding along, going through the motions while we await resolution/normality/the new normal.

I’ve written 1/3 of a novel about Venetian glass, and recently decided to reread what I’d written so far. This is always painful, because a first draft is so rough. What I read felt dull, amateurish, unsophisticated. Yes, after 10 books I still feel these things!

Then I turned to the question every writer knows must be answered: Who should be telling this story, how, and where do you, Tracy, stand in relation? In other words: first person or third person? Am I telling the story through the eyes and mind of my main character Orsola, or am I standing back and looking over her shoulder – or over the shoulders of several characters? And how far back am I standing?

First and third person narratives both have advantages and disadvantages. With first person you get a clear and immediate sense of a character through their thoughts and voice; you get to know them from the inside out. The language is simpler – more prosaic and less poetic, since people tend not to think in poetic terms. Two of my most popular books – Girl with a Pearl Earring and Remarkable Creatures – have been told in first person.

On the other hand, you’re also limited by your character’s point of view. You never get to pull the camera back and provide a wider, more complicated perspective. And being inside the same head for the whole book can be wearying.

With third person, you’ve got the characters, you’ve got the narrator, and you’ve got yourself the writer. What is the distance between these 3 elements? Is the narrator omniscient – knowing everything that’s going on – or limited, sticking very closely to looking over a character’s shoulder? Is the narrator looking over multiple shoulders and if so, how to make that transition from one shoulder to another? And where is the writer? Am I, Tracy, the same as the narrator or have I taken a step back? Does the narrator know as much as me?

Writing third person is all about managing the space between these things – and usually doing so without the reader noticing. It’s damned hard. I’ve always sensed that third person was a much more complicated tool, and thought that when I was finally able to use it successfully, I would at last take my place at the grown-up writers’ table. I think I controlled it reasonably well with A Single Thread; maybe that is my first properly grown-up book. But what I've written of this new novel is in third person, and it has not worked.

Recently I read two masterful novels told in first person: The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue, and Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. I recommend both, though I think both slightly fumble their endings. (OMG Endings! Hardest thing to get right. But that’s for another post.) They use first person in different ways: with the Donoghue I felt immersed in the character, pulling with her; with Ishiguro I was constantly standing back and going, ‘Wait, what?’ (The narrator is a robot, so that’s not surprising, and it’s definitely deliberate, and it works.)

It made me wonder if I was telling my Venetian glass story in the wrong way. So I did an experiment: I took 25 pages and rewrote them in first person. This was far more complicated than simply changing ‘Orsola’ to ‘I’, ‘her’ to ‘me’. It was about looking at each scene through different eyes. What Orsola sees and how she comments on it is different from what the narrator and I see and say.

Within 5 pages, I felt light, happier, more playful. I started looking at Venice, at glass, at life through Orsola’s eyes, and the whole thing became something I wanted to write. I am back in the saddle. Maybe I have been kicked back to the kids’ table of first person, but there is still a feast to be had here.