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Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Roman Holiday

I've just got back from Rome where I spent one of the most self-indulgent weekends of my life. Actually, that probably makes it sound a bit racier than it actually was - sorry, no torrid revelations this time round! What I actually mean was that for the first time in a long time, I did something just for the sake of doing it. There was no reason for it, no deadline or pressing commitment, no ulterior motive. It was done because it could be. Because I wanted to. And there is a strange, childish freedom in that I haven't felt since ... well, since a long time ago.

So what was this defiant statement of personal freedom? Well when you put it like that, it sounds a bit lame. But I'm too far into this now to rewrite it, so here goes: I saw every single Caravaggio painting in Rome.
Bit random, right? But then that's half the point.

In case you're wondering, there are actually 22 Caravaggios in Rome. 21 if you want to avoid a diplomatic incident and count the Vatican separately. 20 if you want to exclude the St Francis in the Chiesa dei Cappuccini, whose attribution is much debated. In case you're interested I've provided the details below so you can complete the pilgrimage yourselves on
your next trip.

It was a fantastic experience. Rome is so jam-packed full of the most amazing art and buildings that, after a while, it can all sort of fade away into a jumbled haze. Focusing on this one painter and on seeing his works and his works alone, not only turned the weekend into a bit of a treasure hunt as I tracked them all down, but also gave me a completely different, and much deeper, perspective on Caravaggio. I'm still not sure why I like his paintings so much. Partly the daring and subversive compositions and subject matter, partly the dramatic use of light and dark and the incredible faces. Mostly though, I think, because of who he was. It is a wonderful paradox that such a flawed man - he was a noted gambler, drinker, fighter and, ultimately, murderer - from such lowly origins could rise to paint with so much daring and originality and beauty.

But just before you start worrying that I've been carried away right up my own a**, you'll be pleased to know that BA brought me back down to earth (very nearly literally) with a bang. Actually, it was less of a bang that a sudden loss of power in the cabin at 30,000 feet, a marked change in the engine note, and then a slightly strained announcement from the Captain that we would immediately be diverting to Nice. Well, it could be worse, I thought, the image of a pleasant meal in the Vieux Port springing into my head. No such luck. Having staged a brief re-enactment of Bridge over the River Kwai by keeping us on board for two hours in temperatures of 38 degrees, they eventually bussed us to the terminal and then left us there for another two hours before finally announcing what everyone else had already guessed anyway - the plane wasn't going anywhere that night.

Having by now lost all confidence in BA's ability to manage its way out of the proverbial paper bag, I took my fate into my own hands and booked myself on the next available flight out of Marseille the following morning. But the best was yet to come. My taxi driver, it turned out, had recently got divorced and was intent on flooring it the whole way there to try and take his mind off things. Now I'm no psychologist, but even I can diagnose someone who sends texts while doing 170k an hour, as verging on the suicidal. Two hours later I staggered white-faced into the Novotel in Vitrolles (never, ever go there if you don't want to catch something) and then was up 3 hours later (and another £90 down) to catch the first flight home.

I guess that self-indulgence, like all good things in life, comes at a heavy price!


Caravaggio Tour of Rome:

Galleria Borghese (need to book in advance)
- Sick Bacchus
- Boy with a basket of fruit
- Madonna dei Palafrenieri
- St Jerome
- St John the Baptist
- David with the head of Goliath

Santa Maria dei Popolo
- Crucifixion of St Peter
- Conversion of St Paul

Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica di Palazzo Barberini
- Judith and Holofernes (above right)
- Narcissus

Chiese dei Cappuccini
- St Francis

San Luigi dei Francesci

- The calling of St Matthew (above left)
- The martyrdom of St Matthew
- St Matthew and the Angel

Sant' Agostino
- Madonna of the Pilgrims

Galleria Doria Pamphilj
- Magdalene
- Rest on flight to Egypt

Musei Capitolini
- The Fortune Teller
- St John the Baptist

Galleria Corsini
- St John the Baptist

Odescalchi Collection
- The conversion of Saint Paul

Pinacoteca Vaticana
- The Entombment

Monday, 22 October 2007

Into the void

So there you have it. The Gilded Seal is published and out there, and now all I can do is sit back and wait and see. It's a horrible feeling, this sense of powerlessness, of things being outside your control and influence. It reminds you of how big a role luck can play in things, which for a logical, rational thinker like me, is an unpleasant truth.

I don't know if you have ever been bungy jumping, but there is this moment, just after you have finally resolved to tip yourself forward towards the void, that you think, 'Christ, what am I doing? What if the rope snaps? What if the ankle restraints don't hold?' But by then, of course, it's too late - your body weight has already carried you past the point of no return. That's where I am now, plunging headfirst towards the infathomable waters of commercial success, worrying about things that it's too late to change and that were, in any case, decided months and months ago in a darkened room between my publishers and the various retailers. (Sorry about the picture, but it made me laugh!)

It doesn't help that I made the fatal mistake on Friday of checking whether my local Waterstones were stocking the book. They weren't yet. In a huff, I headed down to Border's where I had better news - 10 copies in a plum position in the middle of the New Releases bay. Of course, it was difficult to see them over the mountain range of new Ian Rankin hardbacks, but still, they were there. Finally at Heathrow Terminal 1, I headed expectantly over to the books only WHSmith - not a sausage. You can have all the luck in the world, but if the book's not on the shelf ... As you can imagine, I left a rather concerned voicemail for Bruce, my editor, who assured me that it was all down to delivery and stock rotation dates and that the orders were already looking better than the previous two books. Let's hope so!
The good news is that I have already begun to hear back from some of you who have all (so far at least) loved it. But please don't tell me, tell all your friends! The reviews have begun to trickle in too - Gateway Monthly, one of the top online review sites, says:

"James's knowledge of the art world and local history (in this case the Paris catacombs) is exemplary and assists in the credibility of the plot. Deservedly named as one of the top six thriller writers in the UK, James goes from strength to strength. Tom Kirk is a real winner of a character, and the books just get better and better. A real pleasure to read, 10/10 for enjoyment - absolutely first class entertainment. I'd list him in my top four favourite modern authors without hesitation."

And The Daily Sport, no less, commented:

"The plod should be twitching at Twining's latest, about a £100 million da Vinci theft. If you follow the news you'll soon see why. Hyper dapper art-blagger Tom Kirk returns to hunt down the painting, quickly finding himself in the middle of an even bigger mystery. Glamour is supplied to the intricate, interwining ploys by a sexy FBI agent, Jennifer Browne. As the corpses pile up, the pair's destinies merge with Paris and Napoleonic secrets that need unearthing. Ripping stuff."

I don't know why I'm worrying. When a review starts with the immortal line "The plod should be twitching..." and then continues with "Hyper dapper art-blagger ...", things can only get better!
Book signings
I am out and about at a couple of signings over the next few weeks, so do come and see me if you can:

Saturday 27th October:
Chorleywood Bookshop - 10:00am - 12:00pm (4 New Parade, Chorleywood, Herts, WD3 5NJ)
Gerrard's Cross Bookshop 2:00pm - 4:00pm (12a Packhorse Road, Gerrard's Cross, SL9 7QE)

Tuesday 30th October:
Official booksigning at Goldsboro Books at 1pm (7 Cecil Court WC2N 4EZ)

Sunday, 7 October 2007

PR without the pain

My problem has always been that I've never had a life threatening disease, or lost a loved-one to a freak accident, or been a drug addict, or been beaten by a drunken relative, or been through a harrowing divorce. Unencumbered by any of these traumatic life events, it's proved virtually impossible to get any PR coverage for my books!

You think I'm joking, but you'd be amazed at the difficulty in getting any media interest without the benevolent shadow of some sort of personal disaster. I actually had one magazine ask once if I could emphasise (i.e. invent) some marital difficulties because they had a "writers have dysfunctional personal relationships" angle to their piece. Charming.

The problem is that, ironically, non-fiction sells fiction. In other words, journalists are always looking for the personal stories and real-life angles to tell their story. That's fine - I understand that. What's annoying is that all too often the balance seems to tilt towards the "misery memoir" end of the scale. I guess bad news sells. Especially if it's other people's bad news. As the lyrics go in the fantastic Avenue Q:

GARY AND NICKY:Schadenfreude!

GARY COLEMAN:People taking pleasure in your pain!

NICKY:Oh, Schadenfreude, huh?What's that, some kinda Nazi word?

GARY COLEMAN:Yup! It's German for "happiness at the misfortune of others!"

NICKY:"Happiness at the misfortune of others." That is German!

The people at Harper Collins have always done as good a job as they can, but the odds are stacked against them. In fact it seems to get harder with each book as at least when you're a debut novelist it's easier to create a bit of buzz and excitement. By the time you're onto your second you're already yesterday's news!

The great news is that the recovery by the police of the Madonna of the Yarnwinder that I reported to you the other day has provided me with an unexpected PR windfall without me having to simulate any sort of terminal disease. As an example, there was a great piece in The Daily Record and a brief mention in The Scotsman, with lots more on the way.

Bring it on, that's what I say. Which reminds me, one of the great marketing things Harper Collins have set up are a series of competitions to win a bottle of champagne and some copies of the new book.

In case you're interested here are some links to where the competition is being run:

The Times


All in London

View London

Good luck!!

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Stranger than Fiction

Is history repeating itself?

A few weeks before the US publication of The Double Eagle in 2005, the US Government made a sensational announcement. Ten 1933 Double Eagles, the same incredibly rare $20 coins that feature at the heart of my novel, had been seized from the family of one of the dealers implicated in the original 1940s enquiry. Given the plot of my novel (the recovery of five Double Eagle coins stolen from Fort Knox), it was an incredible coincidence that did not go unnoticed by American reviewers at the time:

"Last month, 10 double eagle coins that disappeared 70 years ago mysteriously resurfaced. Federal agents fell on them as though they were grenades. They are now back in Fort Knox. Twining's publicist at Harper Collins should send the Secret Service a fruit basket."

Now, this very evening, I read that the police have recovered da Vinci's Madonna of the Yarnwinder, a painting worth around $70 million that was stolen from Drumlanrig Castle in a daring raid in 2003. So what, you might say? Well here's the thing - that theft and the painting's fate form an integral part of the plot of The Gilded Seal!

If this happens much more often, the cops will be paying me to feature high profile heists in my books in the hope that they might have a chance of recovering whatever was taken! I should charge a commission. Or at least place a bet.

Maybe my laptop has had some strange gypsy curse or Voodoo spell placed on it?