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Extract from ‘Spanish Crossings’ by John Simmons

Following on from my interview with John Simmons, I now have an exclusive extract from his book, ‘Spanish Crossings’.

 

Book Blurb

Spanish Crossings is an epic tale of love, politics and conflict, with the yearning but elusive possibility of redemption. A woman’s life has been cast in shadow by her connection to the Spanish Civil War. We meet Lorna in 1937 as she falls in love with Harry, a member of the International Brigade who had been at Guernica when it was bombed. Harry is then killed in the fighting and Lorna fears she might have lost her best chance of happiness. Can she fill the void created by Harry’s death by helping the child refugees of the conflict?

She finds a particular connection to one boy, Pepe, and as he grows up below the radar of the authorities in England their lives become increasingly intertwined. But can Lorna rely on Pepe as he remains deeply pulled towards the homeland and family that have been placed beyond his reach? Coming through the war, then the post-war rebuilding, Lorna and Pepe’s relationship will be tested by their tragic and emotive history.

 

Extract

Extract from ‘Spanish Crossings’

 

Interview with John Simmons

I’m delighted to welcome John Simmons back to my blog.  His  new book, ‘Spanish Crossings’ will be out next month.  I asked John some questions.

 

Your new book sounds wonderful. Can you tell me a bit about ‘Spanish Crossings’ please.

It’s my second novel – ‘Leaves’ was my first. Some readers remarked about ‘Leaves’ that it was a historical novel – set in 1970 – and that surprised me. But I think it gave me the courage to attempt something more genuinely historical, so ‘Spanish Crossings’ is set before, during and after the Second World War. Its main background is the Spanish Civil War and the true but little-known story of the 4000 Basque children who were refugees from that conflict in 1937. History always has a contemporary relevance.

But it’s not a history book, it’s a story. And as a story there is a main character, Lorna, who is a young woman in the 1930s engaged in the politics of that time. The novel is her story and it’s about conflict and love against that historical background. I hope – and early readers confirm – that it’s a gripping story with a somewhat chequered but intriguing relationship at its heart.

 

Where did you get the idea for this book?

I had gone to Spain to run a Dark Angels writing course. I dreamt the line “Mother declared herself happy” – the first time such a thing has happened to me. I liked the line and continued writing that day in Seville. Going from café to café, bench to bench, it grew into a story that is now the novel’s Prologue and it created the main character and theme. It showed that I had been thinking about some family history.

My daughter Jessie – named after my mother – is the family researcher. She’s always been interested in family stories, perhaps particularly about my mother and father whom she never met (they died while I was relatively young). We had photographs of my mum with refugee children during the Spanish Civil War, and of a Spanish boy my mum and dad had ‘adopted’ at the time. I only knew his name was Jesús and that he had returned to Bilbao in 1938.

Jessie gave me a book called ‘Only for three months’ (by Adrian Bell) that told the story of the Spanish children who had come over on a boat called the Habana in 1937, soon after the bombing of Guernica by German airplanes. Guernica became famous for its brutality and for Picasso’s response in one of his most famous paintings. So the combination of family and world history developed the idea for the book, and once I started working on it, it took hold of me.

 

Did you have to do research and what did it entail?

It started with the reading of that book ‘Only for three months’, and a number of plotlines came from that. I read a lot around the subject and the period. I also found the art and photographs of the time helped me really enter the period. One photographer – Wolfgang Suschitsky, himself a 1930s refugee from fascism – was particularly inspirational (one of his photographs is on the front cover).

The other vital research was to do with place. There are three main settings: London, Guernica and the French border town of Hendaye. I grew up in central London so the London settings came naturally, but it was still fascinating to walk the streets featured and imagine them in an earlier period. I visited Bilbao and Guernica in northern Spain and that helped me get a proper feel, though obviously they are much changed. Visiting Hendaye was probably the most directly inspirational because it has a particular geography that plays an important part in the story. I could look across the estuary towards Spain, just a couple of miles away, and write on the spot.

 

How long did it take you to write?

I wrote what is now the Prologue on that Dark Angels course in September 2014. And finished writing the novel in April 2016. So two years with further editing time.

 

What is your usual writing routine?

My routine is not to have a routine. I’m not one of these writers who starts at 6, say, and works through to lunchtime every day – then plays tennis in the afternoon. My life is not like that because I work as a writer and consultant in the world of business and brands. My paid work in those areas subsidises my personal, fictional work. So I fit my own writing in when and where I can.

Actually my one really established writing habit is to always spend Friday evenings locked away – nowadays in my converted loft at home – and write as late as the spirit moves me. It used to be till the early hours – nowadays I stop before midnight.

 

I think it would be wonderful if some of the characters from your book came alive. What would be your reaction if that happened?

It has happened. These characters are real for me. I also have the strange experience with this novel of my family history. My mum and dad are definitely not characters in the novel but I found myself writing scenes where they might have been present. It might sound spooky or sentimental – but it was an important aspect of the writing experience with this book.

 

What are you planning to write next?

When I finished ‘Spanish Crossings’ I felt bereft – the story and characters I’d lived with had moved out of my head. So I needed to fill it with another story and new characters. I almost forced that to happen one Friday night, writing a series of short pieces set during the First World War. That gave me a range of characters and the characters suggested stories that could be linked.

What has emerged is a novel in progress called ‘The Good Messenger’. It’s set before and after the First World War; the first part has a nine-year-old boy as its central character, the final part shows him grown up in the 1920s and reconnecting with some of the characters from the pre-war period. I’m probably two-thirds (about 60.000 words) through the first draft.

 

You’ve had an interesting career by the looks of it. Can you tell me a bit about your Dark Angels workshops?

I was a director of Interbrand until 2003 (‘the world’s leading brand agency’). I insisted that language – the way companies communicate through words – needed to be part of branding. So I established a discipline to focus on that, and started writing books about ‘how to write more powerfully for brands’. One of those books was called ‘Dark Angels’, and this also became a training programme in ‘creative writing for business’. Three books make up the Dark Angels Trilogy and these have now been published in new editions by Urbane.

I’ve been running these Dark Angels courses for more than a dozen years now, for most of that time with two Scottish writers (Stuart Delves and Jamie Jauncey) and now with a wider group of associates, including writer/trainers in the USA, Ireland and the Antipodes. We go to remote and beautiful places – the Scottish highlands, Andalucian national park, coast of Cornwall, rural Ireland – and work with writers intensively on creative exercises. It’s great fun. People who ‘graduate’ tell me that it’s a life-transforming experience. www.dark-angels.org.uk

 

What are your thoughts on social media?

It’s the world we live in now. When the most powerful man in the world seems addicted to Twitter, you can’t ignore its influence. So I’m regularly on Twitter @JNSim, less regularly on Facebook, and I enjoy Instagram because I love photography and make no claims for any ability in that area.

More recently I’ve discovered more of the background to my Spanish story and the events of that time via Twitter. I was followed by a number of Spanish/Basque people and they have been enormously helpful in uncovering previously unknown aspects of that history. Including some of what happened to Jesùs Iguaran Aramburu after he returned to Spain.

 

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I’ve always loved theatre and football. I’ve been lucky to combine these passions with my writing work. With my son Matt I wrote a book about our team, the Arsenal, and I’ve worked on the brands of a number of theatrical institutions such as the National Theatre, the Globe and the Old Vic.

 

What do you prefer – hardbacks or paperbacks?

I’ve always loved the book as a physical object, the look, feel and smell of a new book. The hardback has more of that tactile, sensuous appeal but I probably prefer to read paperbacks simply because I read while travelling, and a paperback is so easy to carry around and read on the tube, train etc. But I do believe all books are beautiful, collectible objects – I had to create my loft largely because I’d run out of shelf space for all the books. Books do furnish a room.

 

Describe your life in three words

Observing, listening, writing.

 

Links

26 Fruits Website – www.26fruits.co.uk/blog

Dark Angels Website – www.dark-angels.org.uk

Co-founder of www.26.org.uk

Twitter – @JNSim

Guest Post by John Simmons

John Simmons

I now have a second guest post by John Simmons.

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The sum of reading and writing

Reading, writing, arithmetic – somewhat bizarrely called the three R’s. I always inclined towards the first two, but increasingly see them as two sides of the same equation. To become a better writer, become a better reader.

I always wanted to be a writer. And I’ve always read. But it wasn’t until I started training others to write with more impact that I fully appreciated the importance of reading for any writer, particularly to be effective writers at work.

In probing what makes writing ‘effective’ I realised that writing had to be ‘creative’. Now as I was training people to be better writers in the business world – rather than to be novelists, poets, playwrights etc – this was quite a leap for some people to make. Can business writing really be creative? Doesn’t it just need to communicate clearly and factually, with no frills, like the Ronseal ad to do just what it says on the tin? Well, no, because that will only take you so far and people – customers of any kind – are actually looking for a greater human connection. They are not inert recipients of information. Those customers respond to stories and the emotions that are unlocked by stories; stories that help them hear the individual human voice rather than the anonymous corporate one.

So my workshops were not ‘top ten tips to target higher sales’ but were about helping people to tell better stories. Of course, for those stories to work they have to be authentic, true to the writer and the organisation. So I have a fundamental mantra ‘put your personality into your writing’ – because it works. You realise as a writer that you are communicating not with a faceless mass categorised into A/B/C demographics but with one individual at a time – and that individual is your reader.

What are your readers reading by choice? Probably they are reading novels, biographies, poems. One of my fundamental workshop exercises became ‘your favourite book’. By asking a group of writers to talk about a book that represents their best-loved reading, enormous animation enters the room. When I then ask them to produce fictional writing based on, say, To Kill a Mockingbird or Girl on the Train, they begin to find out important elements of writing that can be applied to business writing. You learn by doing, discovering a novelist’s skills and realising that those same skills can be applied to the next strategy document you have to write.

So too with poetry. The techniques of rhythm, alliteration, assonance can all – used well – lift the quality of your business writing. You learn to influence people by using the emotional value of words chosen with care and used with deliberation.

To sum up, you can become a better writer of any kind if we break down the barriers between different kinds of writing. Read well, by which I mean read widely. Reading a good novel will give you pleasure and help you to become a better writer at work.

 

 

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Book Cover

Competition

Matthew Smith is kindly giving away three copies of ‘Leaves’.  To enter just leave a comment about the book cover.

 

Terms and Conditions

This competition is open worldwide.

The closing date is 11:59 p.m. on the 3rd April 2016.

The winners will be randomly chosen within 7 days of the closing date.  Their details will be passed on to Matthew Smith who will send out the prizes.

 

Good luck!

 

Guest Post by John Simmons

John Simmons

This is the first of two guest posts from John Simmons, author of ‘Leaves’.

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The collaborative bonus

The old stereotype of the solitary writer, pen in hand, starving in a garret, is not true to reality. Except… In the end writing comes down to the transfer of thoughts from an individual brain to a form that can be read by many. So there is a solitary element, and I suspect most writers love that.

“The novelist is an egomane who refuses to delegate his job to anyone.”
John le Carré

But we are also social creatures and I love the feeling of writing alongside others, supporting and supported by others. Urbane, with its network of writers and readers, offers that. When Urbane published my novel Leaves it brought an end to a long, solitary wait for publication. I had written early drafts some decades ago then consigned it, spurred by the discouragement of mainstream publishers, to that loneliest of all places – the bottom drawer. But Matthew Smith of Urbane encouraged me to get it out and, remarkably quickly, it was being supported by readers and writers whose cause was to get books read that deserved to be read.

I had previously found the value of this collaborative approach through other projects I had initiated. In particular I had established two organisations focused on writing. The first was called 26 (after the number of letters in the alphabet). After a dozen years 26 has grown to a membership of 350+ writers, mainly drawn from the world of business writing.

Business writing has given me an income to subsidise other more personal forms of writing. I believe that writing for business needs to be more creative – there’s more than enough boring business writing out there. This philosophy is behind special projects run by 26 involving large numbers of writers focused on a single theme. Recently we had 26 Pairs of Eyes with the Foundling Museum and currently 26 Twits that celebrates the work of Roald Dahl.

The second organisation is Dark Angels. This started as a book with that name, setting out my philosophy of business writing, and it developed into a training programme that has now reached and influenced hundreds of writers. Along the way we have undertaken some spectacular collaborative events – an exhibition at the Story Museum (Other Worlds), and a collective novel (Keeping Mum) written by 15 writers (amazingly it worked). The writers involved become better writers through the involvement of other writers. There is a joy in working together with other writers and seeing how they take different angles on achieving the same objective.

This experience was distilled into three books that are now being republished by Urbane as the Dark Angels trilogy – the other two books are We, Me, Them & It and The Invisible Grail. Without wanting to sound like a cult, people claim that these books have changed their lives. They have certainly formed a network of writers who have the generosity to work with others and who believe in the absolute pleasure of writing as an essential, shared part of life.

 

Links

‘Leaves’ is available to buy from:-

Urbane Publications – http://urbanepublications.com/book_author/john-simmons/

Amazon UK – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Leaves-John-Simmons-ebook/dp/B01080YCXM/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1457984419&sr=1-1&keywords=leaves+by+john+simmons

www.dark-angels.org.uk

www.26.org.uk

 

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