Monday, 15 August 2022

Out of the fire... a haunting Portrait


When Frances McDonald arrives at her burnt home on the morning after the fire, she wanders through the devastation of charred furniture, scorched floorboards, and piles of glass. In her studio, cakes of paint have melted and spilled, making patterns across the floor. Artworks are singed, paper cascades from a cupboard and there's more heaped glass. The space could almost be described as a bizarre stage set, and Frances later paints a picture which she calls 'Studio with Glass Shards'. In time, she recreates some of her destroyed paintings on partly-burnt paper and displays them at an exhibition, entitled the 'Fire Series'. 

But the most dramatic work to emerge from the fire comes about by chance. Frances happens to glance into a cracked mirror that is hanging on the wall. She sees a reflection of her face - haunted, gaunt - and looks about for a sheet of paper, finds a sliver of charcoal and quickly draws her face. There is ash eddying about her feet and she reaches down and scoops up some of it to create shadows beneath her cheekbones. One of her fingers has been scratched and a drop of blood is welling out of her skin. This she smears onto the background to denote flames - or perhaps a reflection of the emotional cost. Tapping the charcoal to sharpen its point, she draws the mirror's crack down her face. It is an extremely personal work, and one that she keeps hidden until she risks showing it to a collector who immediately sees its extraordinary power and significance.    

"A self-portrait by English-born South African artist, Frances McDonald, rendered in charcoal, ash and blood. A unique treatment indeed," announces the auctioneer when the painting is sold at auction.
And later...
The Fire Portrait hangs in a gallery in London.
Haunting portrait hints at turmoil, headlines one newspaper. 
Fractured society, says another.
An omen, says a third. 
A modern classic, is the consensus.

Read the Book, Paint the Portrait  #thefireportrait

Monday, 1 August 2022

Making fire for The Fire Portrait...

In the novel, a shocking fire breaks out in the home of Frances McDonald. She lives on the edge of the Karoo semi-desert in South Africa. It is the early 1940s, and she's alone while  her husband serves with Allied forces in North Africa. 

At first, it seems that the fire is an accident. But then Frances takes stock: the hearth was empty; the stove was turned off; no lamps were lit. Two windows had been broken, indicating forced entry, leaving shards of glass on the floor - curved glass rather than flat window stock.
Could the accident be arson?

My challenge was to make sure I understood the nature of house fires. The villain was to hurl home-made bombs through two windows. They would start a fire that sweeps through the house but fails to destroy it entirely. Curtains are burnt, furniture charred, floorboards scorched. Helpers pass water buckets hand-to-hand before the arrival of a water tanker and fire hose. 

Who do you call for advice on a fire-bombing from the 1940s? It turned out that my local Fire Station was happy to help - and, I suspect, rather intrigued. The discrete heaps of curved glass shards would come from the fire-bombs, which consisted of a wick inside a milk bottle filled with petrol. Once lit, the bombs must be thrown fast before the petrol vapour explodes and my villain is vaporised. I had to ensure Frances drank her tea black - no curvy milk bottles could be on site! Or glass vases. To further confirm the fire-bombing scenario, I introduced a savvy builder (there to effect repairs) who found a partly-burnt rug that was about to be discarded, and detected the faint whiff of petrol, specifically on its underside. The temperature of the fire was also important. Glass in framed pictures would not necessarily melt but probably only crack. The mirror that reflects Frances's haunted face also suffered a crack, in this case down its centre... a crack that would prove unexpectedly significant for the Fire Portrait that she creates. 

It is Frances's young pupil who, months later, provides the final proof. 
I saw him, ma'am. I saw him take a bottle out of his coat, bend down and light it, then throw it through the window... then I saw flames inside.
He didn't look back, ma'am... 

But who will believe the youngster? 

Tuesday, 12 July 2022

Painting the Fire Portrait

In The Fire Portrait, a shocking fire rips through the heroine's home in the rural hamlet of Aloe Glen. Ceiling panels have fallen down, exposing the underside of the corrugated iron roof. The curtains are burnt, the furniture reduced to scorched hulks. The dining room chairs Frances had painted with a whimsical display of jasmine and vines are blistered and blackened. In her studio, burnt paintings lie scattered. A paintbox has sprung open from the heat and left melted streaks across the floor. There are also unexplained shards of glass beneath some of the windows...

As Frances makes her way through the charred remains, she glances into a wall-mounted mirror. It is still hanging and intact, except for a hairline crack down its centre. 

I walked closer. A face looked back at me. Thin, gaunt, almost. Green eyes with a sheen of defiance shading to despair. 
I picked up a surviving piece of paper and a sliver of burnt wood.  
I looked into the mirror once more, and began to draw.

My wonderfully talented artist friend has captured this pivotal moment in the novel. She has recreated Frances, reflected in the mirror. It's a deeply moving image of my feisty heroine. Thank you! 

A face emerged. Angled cheeks. Billowing hair. I rubbed my finger through the ash on the floor and stroked it below the lines of the cheekbones to make shadows. 
Then I picked up the charcoal sliver, tapped it to make the point sharper.
I drew a line down the centre, just like the crack bisected the mirror.  

I wonder if any of my readers are inspired to recreate this moment, too?
Put it up on facebook or Instagram, you never know where it will travel...
Read the Book, Paint the Portrait   #thefireportrait

Monday, 27 June 2022

The Fire Portrait in Colour/Cover

Designing the cover of a new book is an intriguing challenge. How to convey an element of the story in such a way that will attract a reader and convince him or her to buy a copy...but not give away too much? Or, conversely, how to conceal certain aspects so that the reader will be surprised by what emerges? 

In The Fire Portrait, we wanted to reflect a particular view of Africa: the stark mountains, the semi-desert plains, the sense of space, the clarity of light, a young woman alone in an alien environment and... a whiff of fire. I also liked the idea of creating a cover that would have a link with my previous novels, The Housemaid's Daughter and The Girl from Simon's Bay. And that link lay in the figure of a young women or a young girl, standing alone, seen from the rear, gazing out over a land or seascape. 

When it was done, I found myself surprised and delighted by a particular feature of the finished product that we had not necessarily targeted. It turned out that the colours chosen for the cover not only conjured up the broader landscape - and the whiff of fire - but also mimicked the colours of the plants that Frances, the heroine, paints. This was brought home to me most dramatically when I took the published book back into the area where the story is set and posed it against the weathered bark of a quiver tree. It blended into its surroundings with ease.
An almost-perfect camouflage? Perhaps revealing and concealing at the same time...   

Monday, 6 June 2022

Digging in... finding the flora in The Fire Portrait

I've always been fascinated by the plants of the Cape Floral Kingdom, the most diverse and smallest of the six designated kingdoms in the world, situated on the south west corner of Africa. It's on UNESCO's World Heritage List and is described as being the "hottest hotspot" in terms of variety of endemic and threatened species, an "extraordinary assemblage of plant life and associated fauna covering more than a million hectares." The unique vegetation is adapted to survive drought, floods - and fire. Indeed some proteas need fire in order to propagate. The kingdom stretches from the coast into the interior, reaching an area known as the Succulant Karoo Biome.  

Frances, the heroine of The Fire Portrait, loved to paint the plants of her native England. But when she settles in the Karoo semi-desert, she is faced by a totally different challenge. The scrubby bush is hard and dry and seemingly devoid of colour. It's only when she begins to look more closely that she finds unknown bulbs that flower fleetingly, aloes that put up spikes of brilliant orange in the winter, and strange pebble-like succulents that are easy to miss beneath your feet. They require different colours from those she has used for the gentle landscape of her childhood. 

Understanding these plants was a challenge for me as well! I knew the magnificent flora of Cape Town and environs, but the cryptic Karoo needed research. I spent time in the Karoo Desert National Botanical Gardens in Worcester among their selection of plants that Frances would have encountered in the fictional hamlet of Aloe Glen, situated just further north. As she discovers, the land doesn't bloom easily.
"It's a harsh beauty. It only rewards grit. And persistence."
Aloe Glen's rural community requires grit and persistence, too, as Frances attempts to integrate. But she does persist, and ultimately finds a tentative belonging, like the plants that have made their home in the stark environment. But it's never easy...
"This place will always unsettle me. Draw me in and then push me away..."   

Wednesday, 18 May 2022

The Fire Portrait arrives in the US!

I am delighted to say that The Fire Portrait has reached the United States in physical, print form! While the e-book has been available in North America for several months, it's only now that the paperback has been released for sale. So... please spread the word to your US friends and colleagues and encourage them to grab a copy! 

Will it go down well with an American audience? I hope so.
I've always been surprised by the enthusiasm of readers for my novels in countries whose connection with South Africa is not necessarily close i.e. no particular historical tie, no waves of migration to the country, no noticeable links of culture or language. Readers in Spain, for example, have gobbled up my previous books in translation. 

Some 800 million print books were bought in the USA last year. Print still dominates the buying - and reading patterns - of Americans, although there has been an uptick in e-book and audiobook consumption. But neither of those formats has yet upended the role of print. 

I think it's a physical thing: a book in the hand is a gift, something that we can hold onto, a visible and touchable route into a different world filled with characters we grow to love, admire, hate or tolerate.

And a shelf of books in the home is both a repository of memories - via a turned down page, a frayed cover - and an inspiration for the heart and mind. The words of the great Roman statesman and scholar, Cicero, still hold true:
A room without books 
Is like a body without a soul.  




Saturday, 23 April 2022

Lift-off! Website re-launched!

My website,, has been going for a decade, and with the arrival of The Fire Portrait, it required a fresh boost - and a facelift! 

A new section explores how I decided on the plot for The Fire Portrait and then dives into some of the key elements like the town of Aloe Glen, the role that art plays in the book, the railway line that wanders through the story, and the response so far in terms of media coverage. 

Readers have asked me why I chose to make Aloe Glen a fictional hamlet rather a real place, as is the case in my previous books. Well... a shocking event occurs in the novel and I reckoned that siting it in an existing community that might have had an unblemished history would not endear me to the locals! But I did identify where the hamlet would probably be located: Follow the railway line from Cape Town, pass through Worcester in the Breede River Valley, keep going into the Hex River valley, look for the area where the original rail tunnels were bored through the mountains, and somewhere in the vicinity you will find a spot where the land levels out, overlooked by what must surely be Aloe Peak... 

Talking of the railway, did you know that laying a route through the terrain in the 1870s was so demanding that a new gauge of railway had to be adopted to accommodate the steepness and the curves? Read more about this, and its implications on rail transport to the present day. If you're curious about the art in the book, take a look at the type of botanical illustrations that Frances would have painted, through the beautiful work of artist Betty Bowker. And if you like to listen or watch, then head for Media and News, where you'll find me in radio interviews, reviews and on video. 

Enjoy this peek into the background, research and response to The Fire Portrait!