Newsletter May 2014

Here we go with another newsletter. And this time there's a fair bit to talk about.

A short while ago, I was asked to take part in a very interesting project by the photographic artist Anna Grayson. She is reimagining some old paintings and setting them in a more modern context. She has already worked on the portrait of Jean Arnolfini and Jeanne Cenani, his wife, by Jan Van Eyck (1434) amongst others. To my shock, but delight, she contacted me to see whether I would pose for her for a reworking of Holbein's 'The Ambassadors' (what was he thinking about when he put that skull in at that angle?)

Anna Grayson's reworking of 'The Ambassadors'

This is the result. I'm the grim-faced one on the right gripping my lovely Visconti Homo Sapiens instead of gloves, naturally! At the other side of the table is Ian Mortimer, the excellent author who has done so much to influence my writing, from the early days with his superb The Greatest Traitor, to the more recent Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England, both highly recommended.

We had a great afternoon of photography, and I am really grateful to Anna and Ian for letting me get involved in this wonderful project. Especially for the cream tea of scones, jam and clotted cream provided by Anna afterwards!


Other projects take more time.

By the time you read this, I'll be appearing at the AsparaWriting Festival in Evesham. This is a new festival aimed specifically at novice and aspiring writers. Most festivals target audiences who want to listen to authors of all types talking about their latest books, but for most people that kind of event is a little tedious after a while. The same anecdotes from the same reliable ex-stars, reality TV stars, gardeners and cooks can become a bit hard work.

AsparaWriting is intended to be different, especially since all the authors involved are to be paid.

A little while ago I saw a story in The Author (the quarterly magazine for writers) about a novelist, Guy Walters, who went to Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival. There he entertained 800 people for an hour, all of whom paid £7 each. In return he was offered six bottles of "indifferent wine". Cheap plonk, in other words. Now, I'm usually grateful for any alcohol I can get my hands on, but I would have been furious to be offered that. It's an insult to someone who probably spent a week preparing his speech, practising, writing, editing - is his time really worth so little? His trip of 250 miles was expensive, but his request for compensation was met with a blank refusal.

I've had similar. I once went to Dartington, where I was offered payment of one bottle of cheap wine, no expenses, and no fee. In return I filled a hall with over 100 interested people, and kept them laughing for an hour. They were happy, even after paying £6 to listen to me. I calculated that the organisers of that festival must have made several thousands of pounds. I vowed then, never again to do freebies for big festivals. No one expects a plumber, carpenter or lawyer to work for nothing and I don't see why authors should be either.

Why do festivals think they can offer insulting payments of this sort? The same author, Guy, later met the comedian Al Murray, who told him that the standard fee for a stand-up was 70% of the take on the door. On that basis, Guy should have been paid almost £4,000.

All of which is a long way of saying that AsparaWriting is one of the first festivals to try to put the balance of income back into the pockets of the people who generate the money. I wish them lots of luck!

In June I'll be going to Toronto, to the Bloody Words Festival 2014. I'm landing on Wednesday 4th, and the rest of the week and weekend will be a whirl. I am enormously honoured to be invited to this prestigious crime writing festival, because I am the International Guest of Honour. That is not a title I ever expected to be given during my lifetime, and I'm really honoured. I don't know - first I had the real thrill of being the Grand Master of the Krewe of Little Rascals, leading the first Parade of the New Orleans Mardi Gras, then I was given the huge honour of talking to the students of Lander University, and now this. It's a big year for me.


Fields of Glory

Of course I couldn't let the newsletter go without mentioning the new book. Fields of Glory should be out in early June, and if you want to buy a hardback, for goodness sake put in an order early (especially if you're in the US). The print run for hardbacks is vanishingly small, sadly, and they will sell out very quickly.

This new book is a departure for me, as you will know if you have followed my career. I'm embarking on a trilogy of Hundred Years War books, based around the experiences of a vintaine of archers. Think of Band of Brothers, or All Quiet on the Western Front and you'll have the idea. This is a story of comradeship, trust and deceit. Friendships won, enemies won, and faith and heroism tested. I really liked it, and I only hope you do too. if you have any comments on it.


Now, for some time I've been using social media to put up comments. I've dabbled with Facebook, which I don't really get on with, and Twitter, which I do, sadly: too much (I waste too much time on it - I'm @MichaelJecks)! Recently I've started fiddling with Instagram, Pinterest, and YouTube.

I know. There is little more terrifying than the concept of a scribbler muttering into his latest shot of whisky about the trials and tribulations of trying to deal with publishers, editors, and booksellers. Or weeping into her gin and tonic about her writer's block.

That, dear friends, is why I'm doing it differently. With the aid of a hideously expert young teen (my daughter, otherwise known as She Who Must Be Obeyed - with apologies to Horace Rumpole), I am recording a series of YouTube videos about my books, my writing, my life, my locations, my characters - in short, everything to do with the Jecks works. The first few books already covered are Last Templar, Merchant's Partner, Moorland Hanging and Crediton Killings. In these I talk a little about the ideas lying behind the books, why I selected specific areas, why I chose the main story lines. In other videos I talk about the period, the historical context, and even daft things like my office and where and how I conduct my research. Do please take a look at the YouTube channel here and let me know what you think.

If you do take a look, please do tick the "like" thumbs up and subscribe to the feed. That way you won't miss any of my dafter and more embarrassing gaffes! I'll be adding videos every Thursday with luck.

At the same time, I am desperately keen to improve on my painting abilities. I am an enthusiastic dabbler, but no more than that. So I have this year given myself the target of painting one picture a week. I've failed abysmally badly to meet that target, of course, but I have been very busy, so I do have some excuse. However, I intend adding new photos and pictures to my photo blog as and when I get the chance, so if you're interested in the less than competent sketching and daubing of a twerp who should spend more time at his keyboard, that's the place to go and see!

Actually, I have another project too. Some years ago I became hooked on the paintings of Fletcher-Watson, and when I saw videos of him talking, I grew enamoured of his wonderful paintbox. After some research, I found that there was a brilliant paintbox maker called Craig Young, who makes brass boxes like this. Now, you may think it's a silly extravagance. Yes, it is. But it's also beautiful and wonderfully well made. And I have decided to have one. Except there is one minor issue. Well, about 250 of them, really, because much though I'd love one, I cannot justify his prices, especially since the waiting list is apparently a year. That being the case, I've decided I will try to make one for myself. The brass itself should only cost about £20, and the paints maybe another £30. I'll need to learn how to work the brass, but apparently that's not too difficult, and a friend who used to be a metalsmith teaching tech at school has offered to teach me the basics of metal-bashing and silver soldering. So, with luck, I'll have a new paintbox for the summer holidays. I certainly hope so.

However, before I can think of a holiday, first I have to finish the book I'm working on currently, the second of the Hundred Years War books. It's working out really well, but it's still an early draft only. There's a lot to do.

Luckily, one aspect of life that has held me back is soon to end. For the last two years I've been working for the Royal Literary Fund as a tutor for students at Exeter University, working with individuals to help them with their writing.

It has been, I must admit, wonderful. The students have been keen, enthusiastic, engaging, and challenging. Their work, from all academic disciplines, has been of a consistently high standard, and I've been blown away by some of the essays, theses and dissertations I've helped with. However, seeing up to ten students a day, reading their work, commenting on it, assessing where their weaknesses lie and trying to overcome them for the students, has been absolutely exhausting. I can honestly say that it has cost me a book a year. So, it is with some regret, but also some relief, that this year I will lay aside my teaching pencil, red ink, and Julia Copus's superb little book on How To Write. I've had enormous fun, but it's time to move on and write more of my own work!

So. There you have it. I've had a hugely enjoyable first half to the year, and there is still more ahead. That is great. I've a load of work to get through, which is a pain, but it's manageable. And when that's all done, I have new projects to work on.

For all my readers - thanks for following my stories and career. Do, please, check out my Twitter feed, FaceBook pages, and especially the YouTube channel. Take a look at my Flickr and PhotoBlog pages every now and again - if it helps, I'll put things up on Twitter when new pictures go up. And do, please, about all these different projects. If you enjoy them, do please let me know. After all, I can always change direction slightly if you would prefer to see me write or comment on a slightly different subject.

And that is it for now. I hope you have a wonderful, peaceful summer, and that you find plenty of time to read (my) books!.

Michael Jecks

Northern Dartmoor