Virgil and the Truth about The Writer’s Muse

This month I was in Tunisia at the kind invitation of The Carthage Classical Academy. I was very impressed by the school, which somehow succeeds in combining a warm, friendly atmosphere with a rigorous classical education, including the study of Latin, logic and rhetoric. You would imagine that this deliciously old-fashioned approach might stifle creativity, but on the contrary the pupils there were buzzing with high concept story ideas such as ‘The Five Minute War’ and ‘Aliens on the Titanic’.

There was even time for tourism. The director of the school took me to Tunisia’s largest museum, the Bardo Museum. Built in a fifteenth century palace, the Bardo is home to eight thousand exhibits, including one of the world’s biggest collections of Roman mosaics. I don’t think I have ever said ‘Wow’ so many times in the space of one hour. We walked past a mosaic of Ulysses strapped to his mast as he listened to the song of the sirens. We saw a partially destroyed mosaic of Neptune’s face, whose lively face and glinting eye made up for his incompleteness. Last of all – and best by far – we stood before the Bardo’s most famous mosaic, Virgil and his Muses.

The Virgil mosaic was discovered in 1896 in a garden in Sousse, and is the only visual depiction of Virgil that we have. He looks forty-something with hollow cheeks and widow’s peak, gazing out of the picture into the middle distance. No, not gazing exactly, for there’s an intensity to his regard – the brightest tile in the whole mosaic is the twinkle in the corner of his left eye. He has the vim and vigour of any author near the start of an exciting new project.

We suspect he’s near the start, because the parchment on his lap contains the eighth verse of the Aeneid: Muse, recount to me the reasons, What so wounded the divinity [that she forced a loyal man through so many hardships…] Virgil has paused in his writing, presumably waiting for muse or muses to recount to him some reasons. Luckily for him, two Muses are standing right there on either side of him.

The inscription in the Bardo museum has misidentified these muses as Calliope (muse of epic poetry) and Polymnia (muse of pantomime), but the one with the scroll and the toned biceps is much more similar to classical portrayals of Clio (muse of history) than Calliope, whilst the one holding the tragic mask is Melpomene (muse of tragedy). Whatever their specialist subjects, the two muses are inclining towards Virgil and intent on helping him out. Melpomene is clutching her cheek, so either she is overwhelmed by the tragedy of Dido and Aeneas or she has just realized, based on Virgil’s current wpm, how long she’s going to be stuck there.

It is fitting that this mosaic of Virgil should be on display so near to the ancient port of Carthage, because of the important role in the Aeneid played by Queen Dido of Carthage. In Book 4, the passionate love affair of Dido and Aeneas is interrupted by a message from Jupiter, reminding Aeneas of his destiny to found a city in Italy. Aeneas sets sail from Carthage and Dido stabs herself on a funeral pyre with Aeneas’ own sword. During her death throes she predicts eternal strife between Aeneas’ people and her own, basically predicting the Punic wars between Rome and Carthage. “Rise up from my bones, avenging spirit!” she cries, which would have made early readers of the Aeneid think of that most fearsome of all Rome’s enemies, Hannibal himself.

In case his Roman readers missed the allusion, Virgil makes it even more explicit in Book 10 of the Aeneid. At a council of the gods on Olympus, Jupiter says:

The time for war will come — you need not press for it — that day when through the Alps laid open wide the savagery of Carthage blights the towns and towers of Rome.

I stood for a long time looking at the Bardo’s mosaic of Virgil and his Muses. This idea of muses hovering at the writer’s shoulder is as insistent as it is ancient. One of the first questions I fielded at the Carthage Classical Academy (like any writer at any school visit) was ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ I need to think of a satisfying answer to this question, because I currently find myself roving from the flippant (‘from the ideas shop on the high street’) to the prosaic (‘you need to develop story antennae and be constantly on the lookout for inspiration’) to the honest-but-useless (‘I don’t know’).

For my money, the best modern conception of the writer’s muse is the following paragraph from Stephen King’s masterpiece On Writing – a Memoir of the Craft. It’s just the right mixture of the prosaic and the ephemeral, and it makes me laugh every time I read it.

There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement kind of guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think it’s fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist, but he’s got inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the mid-night oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life. Believe me, I know.

When I learned to touch-type in my late twenties, that was the paragraph I used as my ipsum lorem filler text. I must have typed it out hundreds of times. I love his portrayal of a fundamentally antisocial muse that possesses cigars and bowling trophies instead of scrolls or flutes or tragic masks.

Is the capricious, part-time muse of Stephen King incompatible with the intent and softly sighing muses from that Virgil mosaic? By no means. Virgil’s Aeneid did not come to him at night in a flash of divine inspiration – he was commissioned by the emperor Augustus to write it. And that commission was not a ‘Write me something beautiful’ sort of commission but rather a ‘Write me some decent propaganda that will unite the empire and Make Rome Great Again’ sort of commission. In accepting the emperor’s bidding, Virgil was already committed to a certain amount of grunt work, no doubt with a deadline to focus his mind.

Muse, recount to me the cause: how was she offended in her divinity, how was she grieved, the Queen of Heaven, to drive this man tum tumty tum…and even if you don’t recount a word I’ll write it anyway cos that’s what writers do.

For more on Dido conjuring Hannibal, see here.

For more on the nine Muses of classical mythology, see here.

And for more pics of my time in Carthage, see here:

Happy New Year

cornwallWe had a good break in a cottage in Prussia Cove, Cornwall, over the holidays. I spent much of it asleep in front of a woodburning stove, occasionally waking up to play Ticket To Ride with the girls or to read a few more pages of the Rub of Time, a delicious collection of essays by Martin Amis.

Also on my bedside table Being Read pile is The Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, which my sister Debbie gave me for Christmas. It’s one of those books like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas where pretty much anything you say about it constitutes a spoiler, so I’ll refrain, except to say it’s clever and thoroughly engrossing. Thanks Debs!

Back to work, now, and another year of writing and school visits awaits. I’m currently doing rewrites on my YA novel about a rebellious chess prodigy. I have a list of possible titles for it, but none of the candidates thus far are screaming CHOOSE ME! Tricky things, titles. Often the very last thing to fall into place.

Next week I start outlining Book 2 of an exciting new fantasy series. I’m not allowed to say anything about that project yet but will no doubt shout about it from the rooftops come September, when Book 1 is published.

School visits: I do have one day still available in World Book Week – Wednesday 28 February. Let me know if your school is interested in a visit that day – see here for details.

A very happy new year to anyone reading this. Hope it’s a good one for us all.

Book Week at Dubai Modern Education School

Just back from Dubai, where I had the privilege of visiting the Dubai Modern Education School for their Book Week DMES Reads. In keeping with Dubai’s reputation as a city of superlatives, the largest book I have ever seen lay open at the front of the assembly hall (pictured above).

For two days I worked with classes from Grades 3 to 8. Most of the kids I met spoke excellent English for their age but one question I fielded did make me laugh: a friendly Grade 4 boy who asked, ‘How many years have you wasted writing books?’ Before I could drown in existential angst, his friend nudged him and hissed ‘SPENT, you mean SPENT!’

Dubai is known globally for its construction addiction. Once home to 25% of the world’s cranes, it now boasts dozens of improbably tall buildings – a good destination for an improbably tall author. Here’s a short timelapse video of 20 years of building in Dubai.

On Monday afternoon I went up to the 124th floor of the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, and stared out across the city in a state of vertiginous jetlagged awe. Rather than pondering the hubris of mankind, I was mostly daydreaming about the dizzying Burj Khalifa scene in Mission Impossible 4.

On Tuesday night we went to the Al Madam Horse Stables in Sharjah. We were treated to a sumptuous lamb barbecue, Emirati dancing and an impromptu oud recital by a Grade 12 student (video below). The oud music made me think of Al-Emir Fares Shebab, the famous Lebanese oud player who died in the sinking of the Titanic – a noble soul who inspired the character of Omar’s father in my book Suvivor Titanic.

For the evening in Sharjah, my new friend Khaled Mohammed lent me his spare kandura, the white robe worn by Emirati men. Light airy garb for an evening in the desert.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Dubai and would love to visit again one day. Warm thanks to all the staff and students at DMES, to librarians Miss Dorothy and Miss Kout, and to my kind hosts Alison and Mike.

DMES Reads

World Book Day 2018

World Book Day 2018 falls on Thursday 1 March 2018. I have been booked by a school for World Book Day itself, but am still free the rest of that week, if your school would like me to visit for talks or workshops. And of course I am open for bookings throughout the 2017-2018 academic year, so do get in touch any time.

Going on holiday to France tomorrow. At least, mostly holiday. I will still be writing each morning, trying to finish off my current YA novel about a spectacularly rebellious chess prodigy.

Wishing all my readers an enjoyable and relaxing summer. See you on the other side.

8 Children’s Books about the Titanic disaster

Many children are fascinated by the story of the Titanic and it is often studied in primary schools as a window onto early twentieth century history, particularly in Key Stage 2. Today is the 105th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, as good a time as any for some recommendations of good Titanic books.

Survivor: Titanic by Stephen DaviesBefore I go on, I should declare an interest. My own Titanic book came out earlier this year. Survivor:Titanic is published by Scholastic as part of their new historical fiction SURVIVOR series. Jimmy from Ireland and Omar from Lebanon meet aboard the Titanic and are exploring the ship together when tragedy strikes. The book is written for reluctant readers, but can be enjoyed by anyone 8+.

Here are eight of the best children’s books about the Titanic – four non-fiction and four fiction – in no particular order.

Non-fiction

1. Story of the Titanic

Story of the Titanic by Steve NoonWhen it comes to portraying the details of this disaster, show don’t tell is key, and cutaways are definitely the best way of showing the inside of the Titanic both before and after the iceberg struck. Steve Noon’s book is highly recommended by Titanic geeks on Encyclopedia Titanica, as well as on Amazon. A real feast for the eyes.

2. Titanic (Eyewitness)

More Show-Don’t-Tell from another sumptuous DK picture book. Really brings the story alive with anecdotes, secrets, facts and puzzles. Perfect for homework projects about the Titanic tragedy.

3. On Board the Titanic: What it was like when the great liner sank

on board the titanic - shelley tanakaTanaka’s book uses real historical characters to tell the story. Jack Thayer’s account is particularly interesting. He was seventeen at the time of the sinking and was one of the few men to stay on the Titanic until the very last minute and still survive. A thrilling true-life story.

4. Inside the Titanic

Ken Marschall made a name for himself for lavish illustrations of books about the Titanic, and this is probably his best one. Like Steve Noon, he uses cutaway illustrations to make readers feel they are actually inside the doomed liner. The real-life accounts of passengers focus on the children aboard the Titanic, which is a particularly compelling (and harrowing) approach.

Ken’s paintings almost seemed to be stills from a movie that hadn’t yet been made. And I thought to myself, I can make these paintings live. It became my goal to accomplish on film what Ken had done on canvas, to will the Titanic back to life.

James Cameron

Fiction

There are dozens of children’s books set on the Titanic, including several time travel offerings where a modern-day hero gets transported back to 1912. The four I have chosen are not time travel stories, but they have all proved popular with young readers.

I SURVIVED is historical fiction, describing ten year-old George Calder’s battle for survival. Lauren’s book is gentle fare, especially considering the terrible setting, but it is well researched and enduringly popular.

Michael Morpurgo’s KASPAR PRINCE OF CATS is an absolute classic. Insired by Michael’s time as Writer in Residence at the Savoy Hotel, this book is charming, evocative and unpredictable, and it deals with mature themes in a very elegant way.

I can’t survey children’s books set on the Titanic without mentioning POLAR THE TITANIC BEAR. Another classic with beautiful full-page colour illustrations. Polar is a teddy bear, of course, and this is the Titanic as told through his eyes. Starts with him being sewed and stuffed in the factory and ends with- well, that would be telling.

TITANIC: MY STORY by Ellen White is the thrilling story of a young orphan Margaret Anne who can hardly believe her luck when she is chosen to accompany wealthy Mrs Carstairs aboard the great Titanic. This is a really good read, but something of a slow burner. It takes a while for Margaret Anne to get aboard the Titanic. When she does, the story is unputdownable.

If you are a teacher in the UK and your class is studying the Titanic, I would be happy to visit. My Titanic presentation covers the background to the tragedy, the research involved in writing historical fiction and some tips on writing exciting action scenes. Do contact me for more details.

School Visits in Saudi Arabia

I’ve just come back from ten days visiting schools in Saudi Arabia. Thanks to Authors Abroad for organizing the trip and to the three schools for their warm welcome: the King Faisal School, the American International School of Riyadh and the British International School of Al-Khobar.

Carsten Niebuhr
I was excited to visit Saudi Arabia, not least because I have a tenuous family connection with the country. In 1761 a young German cartographer called Carsten Niebuhr set off to Arabia as part of a six-man academic expedition organized by the King of Denmark. The trip was fraught with illness and quarrels (recounted in lurid detail in Thorkild Hansen’s book Arabia Felix), but it did prove to have some academic usefulness: Niebuhr’s transcription of the cuneiform inscriptions at Persepolis proved to be a key turning-point in the decipherment of cuneiform.

Carsten Niebuhr was the only member of the expedition to return to Europe alive. As his great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandson, I am very glad he did.

Back to the twenty-first century…King Faisal School is a boys’ school in Riyadh’s Diplomatic Quarter. During my visit the boys showed great imagination developing stories set in Riyadh and other Saudi settings. The day after I left they held a Young Author event, where students sold their own books in Arabic or English.

The American International School of Riyadh has a beautiful new campus on the north side of the city. I met lots of enthusiastic readers during a packed schedule of assemblies and workshops, and even managed a selfie with Readosaurus Rex, the pride and joy of the Elementary Library.

School starts and finishes early in Saudi Arabia, so I had plenty of time in the afternoons to lose at Risk to my host family and to explore downtown Riyadh: the beautifully preserved Al-Masmak Fortress, notorious ‘Justice’ Square and the dizzyingly tall Kingdom Tower. The black and white photograph below is from 1951 and shows a street of barbers and dentists in a street near Al-Swelem Gate (wince).

One night my hosts treated me to dinner at Nadj Village. We sat on plush Arabian carpet and feasted on camel meat and flavoured rice, surrounded by Arabian antiques. I thought of my seven-greats grandfather and imagined him enjoying just such a meal at the Ottoman court in Jeddah, in a pre-oil pre-Saud pre-warplane Arabia.

Arabia Felix indeed.

Blood & Ink at lit.Cologne 2017

Thanks and warm wishes to all the Cologne secondary students and teachers who came to my Blood & Ink reading at the Altes Pfandhaus yesterday. Schools are sometimes nervous about frank discussion of radicalisation, but not so yesterday. Your questions and comments were intelligent and thought-provoking. I hope Blood & Ink does well in Germany and that it helps to promote empathy and peace at a time when both are sorely needed.

Buy Blood & Ink: Die Bücher von Timbuktu on Amazon.de

New Books and Events in 2017

2017 is shaping up to be a busy year of book releases and school visits. First up, the books:

SURVIVOR: TITANIC (Scholastic) comes out this Thursday, and is the first in a new gripping series of first-hand surival stories.

SAHARA DISCOVERY (Rising Stars, 28 April) is a non-fiction book about the Tuareg people of the Sahara. See featured image above.

SAHARA SURVIVAL (Rising Stars, 28 April) is a story about a Tunisian family whose plane has to make an emergency landing in the middle of the desert. Both books are beautifully illustrated by Hatem Aly.

BLOOD & INK is coming out in the US in September, published by Charlesbridge. Cover to be revealed soon.

Later in the year, Pearson UK are publishing my retelling of the well-known Chinese story of Mulan. I loved writing this one and am very excited about its publication.

As for school visits, the diary is filling up fast. Author visits in schools inspire children to read widely and also to write for pleasure. At the time of writing I still have three days available in the week of World Book Day 2017: 27 and 28 February and 1 March.

DateSchoolLocationActivity
10 JanuaryWest Leigh InfantsBristolWorkshops
16 JanuaryArk Priory ActonTalk
3 FebruarySt Matthews CofEBradfordWorkshops
20 - 25 FebruaryInternational SchoolsLagosTalks and Workshops
27 FebruarySydenham High SchoolSydenhamBook week visit
2 MarchCasterton Sedburgh CumbriaBook week visit
3 MarchBilton JuniorRugbyBook week visit
9 MarchCardwell PrimaryWoolwichBook week visit
10 MarchNotre-Dame PrimaryPlumsteadBook week visit
13 MarchCologne Literary FestivalCologneTalk
19 - 31 MarchInternational SchoolsSaudi ArabiaTalks and Workshops
23 MayHome Farm ColchesterAble Writers Day
24 May
St Anne's Catholic SchoolSouthamptonTravel Writing workshops
15 JuneHoly TrinityMargateAble Writers Day
22 JuneWilliam Cobbett JuniorFarnhamAble Writers Day

You can find more information about my school visits (including content, rates and testimonials) by visiting the Author Visits page on this site. Alternatively, for details of my Able Writers Days, please go through the events agency Authors Abroad.

Don’t Spill the Milk artwork

Back in September I enjoyed visiting Bishop MacKenzie in Lilongwe, Malawi. It is now Book Week there and Year 4 have been doing some wonderful paintings inspired by DON’T SPILL THE MILK. Well done, all of you!

If art is your thing, you may also enjoy these ALL ABOARD colouring sheets, drawn by Christopher Corr. Click on an image to download a printable pdf.

colouring1

colouring2

How to Write a Chase Scene

Have you ever walked down a deserted street and had the feeling of being followed?
Have you ever dreamed you were being chased?
Have you ever had to run away from real danger?

In addition to my other school sessions, I now offer an hour-long secondary workshop on how to write an exciting chase scene. This works well with years 7 to 9, particularly boys. The aim is to provide an enjoyable writing experience whilst also imparting useful fiction tips.

The session begins with a three minute montage of chase scenes from films: The Matrix, District 13, Walking with Beasts and the now-famous iguana vs racing snake scene from Planet Earth 2. This stimulates general discussion of chase scenes in fiction: Why do we enjoy them and how do storytellers maximize the excitement of these scenes? I elicit from the students a set of instructions for writing an exciting foot chase. We discuss techniques such as close POV, show-don’t-tell and maintaining pace.

Students work in groups to create a chase scenario for the beginning of a thriller, and then do ten minutes of speed writing, employing the techniques we discussed. Four students read their work aloud. We discuss what is already effective and what could be even better.

For more details on my writing workshops, please email Trevor Wilson at Authors Abroad: trevor@caboodlebooks.co.uk