Anna Maxted's Blog


terrifying audience

The head of literacy at my sons' school has asked me to give a workshop to Year 3. Sixty eight-year olds. I'm slightly frightened, as I can barely cope with one. However, I intend to keep them busy - sorry, as I'm writing this, a black cat is staring at me from outside the window; disconcerting - as I was saying, I intend to keep them busy by posing the question: 'What makes a good story?'

I am hoping they'll afford me some insight... These children, I should add, studied A Midsummer Night's Dream last term, and were so inspired, they wrote their own sonnets. My 8-year old son was so fascinated - by the story and the language - that I bought him the movie version (starring Rupert Everett so we were all happy). He watched it from start to end. This is a child who is picky about books, and reading - he favours Ottoline, some Dahl, The Secret Garden, and not much else. But Shakey made the grade!

I think we know a good story instinctively. Often it's easier to identify what is not a good story, because you're left feeling flat and dissatisfied. The structure, the plot, the characters - all are essential components, and if one is lacking, the rest suffers. But after that, what makes a story good is personal - it has to resonate with you. My 8-year old, a keen footballer, is unmoved by the many books he's given to read about football, and yet, for some reason, he is mesmerised by the tale of sad, cold, orphan Mary, who is sent from India to live with her strange uncle in Yorkshire, and who becomes friends with a robin.

This is the power of the story, isn't it - that when you write, you never know who you will reach, or exactly why. (I remember reading in the Sunday Mirror, quite a few years ago, that a serial killer, interviewed from prison, had listed one of my novels - hand on heart, this is the truth - I think it was Being Committed - as one of his favourites.) I probably won't be mentioning that tomorrow.

I suspect I will start by pinching an idea from John Le Carre. Interviewed in The Times recently, he compared the sentences, 'The cat sat on the mat' with 'The cat sat on the dog's mat.'  One was just an observation, he said, the other was the beginning of a story.... 


hello again!

Oh I know. Not a word - on here at least - for ages. Well. It's been a hectic few years. Raising three children, I'm not quite sure what I expected... ! Also, when you write for a living, often about your own life, informing the world about the minutiae of your day can feel a little excessive. Tweeting has been a snappier way of avoiding becoming a recluse, although recently, I've neglected that too. Though I've noticed a disturbing correlation between the frequency of my tweets, and the number of followers I lose. I find a nice cat-related tweet prompts a good clear out.

Editing fiction, via the Book Clinic, has been a pleasure. I particularly had fun working with Kate LeDonne; it was so rewarding to see how my notes helped her to craft her novel into shape. Often, as an author, you're so close to the material that it's hard to see where you're going wrong. You have the ability, the story, the characters - you just need a little guidance in the fine-tuning. It's exciting to be able to help someone with that; like nurturing a butterfly out of its chrysalis....

I should also mention how pleased I was to be asked to contribute a tale to the first collection of stories to be published by Good Housekeeping on the theme of Great Lovers. My story, The Dressmaker, is set partly during World War II and its aftermath, and the late 1990s. If you've read it, I do hope you enjoyed it.

Now, as an apology for going AWOL, I thought I'd include some input from those responsible for my absence. So; some questions my boys have recently asked, and a recipe from my husband....

* (8-year old) 'Ladies don't do dirty work, do they, Mummy?

* (6-year old) 'Is this a nit on my finger?'

* (8-year old) 'Do cats mind if you see their bottom?'

* (10-year old) 'Can we have dessert?'

* (8-year old) 'When will Uncle Thomas marry?'


(I am deciphering this recipe from my husband's notebook)

Season fish with salt

batter: one part flour to one part beer. Salt. Ditch any batter older than ten minutes.

heat oil to medium hot

dry fish fillet (haddock or cod), flour and season

roll in batter and fry one at a time until golden

drizzle batter on top as it fries to create more crunch.

8 minutes per fish. (When it goes in, let it sit and cook. And if there's a breakage, flip it over and add a spoon of batter to seal.)

Serve. (Will sit and still be crunchy and hot for thirty minutes on a paper towel or wire rack.)

TARTARE SAUCE with sour cream and coriander

1/2 cup coriander, 2tsp capers, and cornichons, 1/2 cup mayonnaise, tablespoon sour cream 3-4 glugs of fish sauce, pepper. Then shoozch it up. Tip out, refrigerate.

He says, serve it with chips (OBVIOUSLY!)  please can I GO ON YOUR COMPITER< excuse me, I left my desk for a second and returned to message from eldest son.

Anyway, all the best, and I'll write again soon... at least... I hope I will....! 


not quite ready for my close-up

Well it’s one thing knowing that you look a bit rough in the morning – advanced age of thirty-one-eleven, intermittent sleep, thousands of children (okay, three, but it’s still a load), a half-mauled sparrow at large in basement courtesy of killer cat, plus other family stresses, the type we all face sooner or later but that are nonetheless sapping of spirit – but whatever the reasons I don’t look photo-fabulous, it’s quite a shock to have six million people witness your non-beauteous visage – and for a bunch of them to comment on it in a mean, cold way.

I say this because today I have a piece in the Daily Mail, with my husband Phil Robinson, entitled ‘Could you photoFit your other half?’

The photographer came round two hours before our deadline, objected to what I was wearing (they don’t like black, or trousers, or anything approaching black, or trousers, so my deep blue harem pants were, politely, vetoed – ‘don’t get me wrong,’ purred the snapper, ‘I think they’re incredibly stylish etc’), so having dug a hideous flowery dress out of the recesses of my cupboard and glared at him while worrying if I’d be able to finish the feature and collect my son from cricket and feed a gaggle of fussy eaters (food must be distinct and identifiable on the plate) an acceptable dinner – I didn’t look like a Gisele or a Helena.

Oh yes and I am too lazy to wear make-up – it makes my eyes swell and turns me into the human version of a puff-adder, consequently, on page 21 today of one of our bestselling national newspapers, I look as plain as the nose on my face.

And yet, comments like ‘she’s got bags under her eyes’ and ‘these drawings take twenty years off her’ just got to me. It’s true that the internet has turned half the world into sociopaths – you can say all the cowardly mean-spirited piggish things to people that you presumably wouldn’t dare say to their face – with no consequence at all to yourself (although, possibly, your arteries clog with the mucus-like goo naturally produced by an evil aura.)

Having ranted, I feel better – but I also wanted to say that writing this feature was enormous fun and actually, an honour – mainly because I got to (virtually) meet forensic artist Carrie Stuart Parks – – and her husband FBI Visual Information Specialist Rick Parks. Not only were they obliging, fun, and delightful – isn’t it funny how the most successful people can be the most generous and kind-hearted? – Carrie managed to translate my bumbling description of Phil into a near identical sketch of him.

Check it out on the Daily Mail website – it’s amazing. All I did was describe him, in six lines, and send her a couple of images of people I think he looks like (with the reasons why.) Then from 6,000 miles away, having never set eyes on Phil, she produced a drawing of him that was so close – and after a few extra pointers from me – managed to pluck his image from my consciousness onto the page. She’s been a forensic artist for over 25 years, creating likenesses of suspects, from witness statements – what a gift.

My six-year old is a pretty committed artist, so I’m going to order one of her books – Secrets to Drawing Realistic Faces. Rick - who runs forensic art courses with her attended by the FBI and The Secret Service, among other law enforcement agencies - sent me an example of what they do; after two days of instruction, one female officer drew a sketch of a man that wouldn't disgrace a professional – two days earlier, her artwork resembled that of my 4-year old! Just brilliant!

Having had the opportunity to work with them was such a pleasure - and I suppose one just has to remember that this world is full of smart, wonderful talented people – not just those who comment meanly underneath Daily Mail articles. 


Anything from augmentation to open-heart surgery

My Book Clinic is open for business - it's very exciting - please do check out the page!

I'd like, if I may, to put this new venture in context. The other day, I  thanked a friend  who'd done me a favour. She replied, 'I like to help people.' It struck me as a confident thing to say of oneself - I admired her for saying it, because like many women, I feel if I say anything nice about myself it sounds like boasting. That's quite a silly, reductive way to live, I realise. Of course we must proclaim our virtues - now and then (constantly would be a bit much). So all I want to say, with regard to the Book Clinic is, I like helping people - there, I said it!  



I'm so lazy I don't even blog

Hello, all!  This is a terrible habit of mine – disappearing for the length of the school year. Can’t think why that might be.

Incidentally, today one of the papers noted with surprise the number of parent bloggers; how do these mothers have the time? My day begins at 5.45, when the 4-year old wanders into our bedroom. I try to ignore him and continue sleeping, but he is always in possession of a token item that commands parental attention – a needle, for example.

The older boys get up at an entirely more civilised quarter to seven, but in the short window between 6.45 and 8.50, manage to turn the house into a war zone and me into a nervous wreck. The four-year old has recently discovered the power of ‘the gesture.’

‘He made a gesture at me!’ shouts the six-year old, as I grip my coffee cup.

‘No I didn’t’ bellows the four-year old – he speaks as if addressing a stadium, always - ‘I did it this way – it means “peace”!’

I have blanked the child, berated him, threatened and bribed him. No effect. Finally, the older ones can bear it no longer and leap on him. I wouldn't say they’re the innocent parties: they’re both highly-trained experts in psychological torture. They coyly, slyly, slowly, maliciously drive the four-year old crazy with frustration – they goad that kid into making ‘the gesture.’ 

The fight, when it happens – imagine three cats, clawing and biting in a cloud of dust. No matter how good-natured a feline, if his survival is at stake, instinct takes over and he becomes feral. My boys (don’t want to malign anyone else’s) are similar; I can bark orders till I’m hoarse but they don’t hear me.

By the time we're walking to school, they’re all refreshed and bouncy from the adrenalin rush of battle; meanwhile my blood flows fast like a river about to burst its banks, and the tendons in my neck are rigid like steel.

Then it’s work, washing, work, supermarket, work, tidying; work; and I’m the last at pick-up again.

Upon the boys' return, I am like a frog leaping from lily pad to lily pad – let’s go to the park – and now see a friend – aha it’s TV time – and a break for dinner – bath! We’ve made it to bath time! Stories! Goodnight, my delicious piglets, yes!

And the triumphant creep downstairs, to husband making dinner, and the possibility of a good murder (Spiral, I mean, or Wallander) because let’s not claim to be doing anything too fabulous on a weeknight – then, just as I’m sitting down to eat, a plaintive squeak of ‘‘Mummy, I heard a noise....’ .

‘Darling, it was just the cat, talking to his cat friends. Now go to sleep. I beg you!’  

‘Can I sleep on the floor in a sleeping bag?’

‘You can sleep upside down, hanging from the ceiling like a bat, if you wish, just – please – sleep!’

The holidays should be fun – but don’t expect to hear from me any time soon....