My pictures are all going to be close-ups. This is, obviously, so that you can see the actual books & their titles. It’s also, ahem, for another reason. I am (oh the shame, the shame) very messy. I have been keen on the idea for writing a piece for Bookcase Showcase for ages, but for all that time I have been fretting too, thinking: even if I tidy up, my shelves – strewn as they are with my kids’ junk modelling, bits of old blutack and vital stacks of papers (they may look messy but I know what’s in them!) – will still look appalling.
So, here are some close-ups. Don’t try to imagine what surrounds them. If you are a tidy soul, the very thought will give you the vapours.
First, the shelf above my desk, in two shots:
This (above) is the left-hand side of the shelf. These are mostly books I used for research when I was writing my new YA novel VIII (which is about Henry VIII) – and in fact a finished copy of VIII is there too, right next to my sister’s book She-Wolves. She-Wolves is a non-fiction history book (for adults) about medieval queens, and it’s brilliant (and yes, I’m biased, but Hilary Mantel chose it as her Book of the Year in The Guardian last Christmas, so I’m biased but also right!) The thin red thing to the left of the postcard is a project on the Tudors that I did at primary school and have recently unearthed. It includes the immortal line: “Before Elizabeth’s birth they were sure that she would be a boy but to her parents disapointment she stubonly refused to be one.” Love that!
Here (above) is the right-hand side of the shelf. Still a lot of research books for VIII. The yellow book lying on top is a psychology book: The Inner World of Trauma – Archetypal Defenses of the Personal Spirit by Donald Kalsched. It is utterly wonderful, and was vital to my understanding of Henry VIII’s psychological development. The great big gold tome is The Inventory of King Henry VIII – a record of all Henry’s possessions, made at his death. I can get lost for hours (no, make that days) in that book. Every time I needed to furnish a room, fill a cupboard, or describe a musical instrument or a bed-hanging when I was writing VIII, that was the book I reached for.
The run of thin red pamphlets behind a postcard is my collection of Royal Ballet programmes. I used to be a dance notator with the company, and some of these programmes are for productions I worked on. Two of them even include an article I wrote about Benesh Notation, illustrated with photographs of Darcey Bussell and Jonathan Cope, taken in rehearsals. These programmes are very precious to me. Also precious is the book on the right called The Royal Ballet – in House. When I left the company, one of my colleagues asked the dancers to sign the photographs of themselves in this book for me, and staff members signed it too – even the director, the wonderful Monica Mason. I can’t think of a better souvenir of my time there!
So much, then, for the shelf above my desk… here are the books currently on my desk, to one side of my computer screen:
I’m now writing a YA novel about the sister-relationship between Mary I and Elizabeth I, so quite a few of the books are connected with that. Towards the right you can see Robert McKee’s Story – a book I always have to hand. Its subtitle is Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, but I find it equally applicable to novel writing. It’s like a mechanic’s tool-kit for the writer – it’s absolutely invaluable when you know something’s wrong with your story but you can’t quite put your finger on what the problem is. I went on Robert McKee’s writing course years ago – it was one of the most intense, exhausting and inspiring weekends I’ve ever experienced, I think!
Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall came out while I was writing VIII. I was already a huge Mantel fan – I had the book on order long before it was published, and the copy you can see is a first edition. Even though I knew it was going to be great, I was still completely floored by its brilliance. I have never cared about a Man Booker contest so much as I did that year and I was jubilant when she won. It’s an ambition of mine to meet her one day, though I’m sure I’d just clam up and make a fool of myself.
The magazine standing up is a copy of The Bookseller magazine from last July, with the cover-image of VIII on the front. How lucky do I feel to have that?! I’d like to frame it but haven’t got round to it yet.
I work in my bedroom, and tend to surround myself with research books – the ones I’m currently using end up all over the floor. Then everyone trips over them, the cats sit on them and make the piles fall over… and my husband pulls his hair out. Recently I’ve put a low square table next to my desk, so I can put my book piles on that – telling myself that lifting them a foot off the floor will improve matters. Actually, it has helped a bit, but the cats still make the piles fall over (they do it deliberately, when they want feeding). Anyway, what you can see are yet more books I’m currently using in my research for my novel about Mary & Elizabeth. I love love love research!
I thought I should show you something other than ‘work’ books, so here are just a couple more pictures:
This is a shelf near my bed, containing some of my most precious books. Most of the ones you can see are editions of Diana Wynne Jones books that I have had since childhood – she was my favourite author and inspired me to be a writer. To the right of her books are some more gems: The Owl Service by Alan Garner, The Haunting by Margaret Mahy, and two editions of The 13 Clocks by James Thurber, one from my childhood (illustrated by Ronald Searle) and the other the new reprint of the original edition. All these books are works of genius. And I couldn’t be more delighted that The 13 Clocks is now back in print – Neil Gaiman, in his introduction to the new edition, calls it “probably the best book in the world”. I agree with him!
The last last-but-one fully visible book on the right is On Not Being Able to Paint by the late Marion Milner, a brilliant writer and psychoanalyst whose books I adore and who had a great many things to say that are immensely helpful for writers. (Also this is, I think, the most glorious title for a book that I know!) The last book – the white one – is Winston Churchill’s My Early Life, an autobiography written in 1930. It is funny, compelling, brimming with energy and ego, and yet self-deprecating too. Added to that, it’s an absolutely fascinating portrait of a lost world (Churchill took part in one of the last cavalry charges made by the British army, for example). I read it as research for a children’s biography of Churchill that I’ve got coming out next year with A&C Black. I was taken aback by its sheer page-turning readability. I recommend it highly!
Finally, here’s a picture of a ruinous habit:
I collect picture books illustrated by Errol Le Cain. They are all (sadly) out of print and some of them are rather expensive. I had one – the Cinderella, shown top centre – as a child, and I still think that that one, above all, was Le Cain’s masterpiece. But every one of the others is exquisite too. I just have to stop buying them!
Thank you so much for having me here, Bookcase Showcase!
VIII – H.M. Castor’s YA novel told through the eyes of Henry VIII – is published in the UK by Templar on October 1st, and in Australia later this autumn by Penguin.
You can view the trailer for VIII, and also an interview with Harriet about the book here: www.hmcastor.com
Harriet blogs as one of The History Girls – a joint blog written by authors of historical fiction and fantasy history for Junior, YA and adult readers: http://the-history-girls.blogspot.com
You can also find Harriet on Facebook and on Twitter (@HMCastor).