While I researched and wrote The Joyce Girl, I tried to fully immerse myself in the sights and sounds of the 1920s. Here are some of the dances, tunes and dancers that helped me, thanks to the internet!


James P Johnson, The Charleston, 1924

This is the original Charleston song, from which the Charleston dance was born. In 1920s Paris, everyone did the Charleston. Lucia Joyce famously taught her father’s friends to dance the Charleston. In The Joyce Girl, I show Lucia teaching Samuel Beckett to Charleston.  It’s a scene I created, but one of the few comments Beckett made about Lucia in later life was to commend her dancing.

Annette Hanshaw, You’re the Coffee in my Cream, 1929

This was Lucia Joyce’s favourite tune during this difficult time in her life and she sang and played it repeatedly, often to her father.

Darius Milhaud, La Création du Monde, 1923

Milhaud was the cousin of Lucia’s first admirer, Emile Fernandez. He was very influenced by jazz and wrote this 15-minute ballet score which used jazz elements and was very radical for its time. Lucia danced to this with her dance troupe, and I listened to it over and over as I tried to reconstruct her.

Victoria Spivey, How do they do it that way, 1929

I chose this one because it is very representative of the Blues music that was drifting over from the US, and features the trumpet-playing of the incomparable Louis Armstrong

Josephine Baker, Please Don’t Touch my Tomatoes’t+touch+my+tomatoes+josephine+baker&*

Josephine Baker took Paris by storm when she arrived in the early 1920s. She later adopted France as her home country. Lucia would have been familiar with her performances. This is known as her ‘signature’ tune.

Fats Waller, Ain’t Misbehavin’, 1929

A classic 1929 song that reflects the mood of the times. Music like this would have filled the clubs of jazz-age Paris.

The California Ramblers, Vo Do Do De O Blues, 1927

Hundreds of artists recorded this catchy song in 1927, making it one of the most popular tunes of the 1920s. Just listening, one is transported into the smoky Paris clubs of the ‘20s. I can imagine Lucia dancing to this song, which was often renamed Crazy Words, Crazy Tune.

Meta Seinemeyer, Un Bel di Vedremo, 1928

The Joyce family loved opera and Mata Seinemeyer was a huge German star in the 1920s. This piece from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, was recorded a year before her untimely death in 1929, aged 33. The Joyce family would have known of her and may have seen her perform.

The Savoy Orpheans, Baby Face, 1926

This band played regularly in London at the Savoy Hotel. This song is perfect for dancing to, and exactly the type of tune I imagined Lucia and Alexander Calder dancing to.

Cole Porter, Let’s Do It, 1928

Cole Porter lived in Paris throughout the 1920s (also studying at the Schola Cantorum) and was known for his flamboyant and scandalous parties.


There were lots of dance styles in the 1920s, considered scandalous at the time because they were often very fast and involved men and women touching. These were five of the most popular:

  • The Charleston
  • The Bunny Hug
  • The Shimmy
  • The Lindy Hop
  • The Turkey trot (which became the Foxtrot)

You can find examples of them all on YouTube (and a couple below too).


  1. Josephine Baker – the ultimate entertainer who danced topless, or dressed in a skirt of bananas. Here she is, doing the Charleston.
  2. Jean Borlin – the principal dancer of the Ballets Suedois which rivalled the Ballets Russes from 1920 – 1925. He mixed his native Swedish folk dance with classical ballet. Borlin later taught Lucia Joyce. He should be better known, but died destitute and addicted to drugs in New York at the age of 37. You can see him (briefly) here
  3. Isadora Duncan- the pioneer of modern, freeform dance. Her dance movement may look simple now, but in her time she was considered revolutionary. She died in France in 1927, but Lucia Joyce learned to dance with her brother, Raymond Duncan, and her sister, Elisabeth Duncan.
  4. Margaret Morris developed Isadora Duncan’s dance style into the Margaret Morris Movement (MMM) which is still taught today. Lucia trained for several years with Margaret Morris, eventually becoming a qualified teacher of the Margaret Morris Method. They often danced outside, taking the Method into schools, hospitals etc. You can see it here
  5. Gilda Gray – a Polish-born flapper famous for popularising a dance called The Shimmy (which she claimed to have invented). You can see it here

The iconic ballet dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky, was probably the most famous ballet dancer of the early 20th century, but was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1919 and spent the rest of his life in and out of institutions. He and Diaghilev transformed the Ballets Russes to make it the most exciting ballet company in 1920s Paris.

A BOOK BLOGGER SAVED MY LIFE (subtitle: In Praise of Book Bloggers)

This time last year, I was on the verge of publishing my first novel. It was a period of huge anxiety: I was convinced the notoriously litigious Joyce estate would sue me. The Beckett estate had already demanded that I remove the character of Samuel Beckett from my novel. I’d spent hours on the ‘phone to lawyers and libel insurers, and I’d barely slept. What if all my work was in vain? What if no one liked my book? It was a book blogger who saved my life … but I’ll come to that later.

It wasn’t only a time of anxiety. It was also a time of learning. I learnt how a book is printed, published, launched, reviewed and promoted. For years, I’d existed only as a reader and buyer of books. Like most people, I scanned the review sections of the national press or hurriedly grabbed a book from a Waterstones table. I had no idea how difficult it is to have a book reviewed in the national press, nor did I know that most bookshops charge a fee for being on a table or in a window display. In the weeks surrounding my launch, I was introduced to the truth about publishing and to the realities of working with a small independent publisher.

Three months later, I was published by the world’s largest publishing company (Hachette, in Australia). This served to illustrate, even more vividly, the huge difference between being published by a giant and being published by an indie. I learnt still more about the commercial realities of publishing – the shrinking margins, the fight for shelf space and readers, the dwindling space devoted to books in the media – and I saw what a huge difference a big marketing budget can make.

But not everything I uncovered was about the hard realities of publishing. My most wonderful finding was the presence of a huge and vigorous book blogging community. I’ll confess: I had no idea about book bloggers before the launch of my own novel. I’m rather ashamed of this now. But while working, bringing up four children, trying to write a novel and running my own blog (nothing to do with reading or writing), I chose books by dashing into a bookshop and snatching the first thing that caught my fancy (yes, invariably from the tables).

My publisher suggested I follow some book bloggers. I started scrolling through various blogs and it was as if I’d stumbled into a book-lined room full of my favourite people. I berated myself: Why hadn’t I found them before? Their dedication to reading and writing (and their frequently large and loyal followings) convinced me that reading is very much alive. In the run-up to publication, I’d read hundreds of articles on the decline of reading. I’d seen it in my own children. As they hit ‘teenagehood’, they read less and less. Social media and school work had sucked up their reading time. I’d seen it in my husband. He worked ever-longer hours, with any free time spent clearing emails. For me, discovering book bloggers meant discovering that thousands of people still feel passionately about books. For anyone who believes books can make the world a more humane and compassionate place, that’s a very cheering discovery.

The book bloggers I follow dedicate hours and hours of their time to reading and blogging about their reading experiences. For free. For the sheer love of books. Discovering this was also hugely inspiring. As a seasoned blogger (on my other passions,cooking and research), I know how time-consuming good blogging is. Photographs of a reasonable quality have to be taken, edited, up-loaded. Posts have to be researched, written, edited, checked – and checked again. Then there’s the tweeting, the FaceBook sharing, answering all the comments, the regular software upgrades, the financial investment. Anyone whose blogged seriously knows it takes more time than the reader will ever know. Book bloggers work particularly hard because they also (obviously) have to read the books they’re writing about.

I was astounded at the quantity of reading that many bloggers do. Some read tens (even hundreds) of books a year. This volume of reading ensures that book bloggers are particularly well-placed to write excellent reviews. There can be no better training for a writer and reviewer than constant reading. Who better to review a crime (for example) novel than someone with a wide and deep experience of reading that genre? There is no commercial imperative for a book blogger. The fact that they’re neither paid nor expected to write in a house-style or to a formula adds to their legitimacy. While authors are often put in the insidious position of having to review a fellow author (with all the political ramifications this brings) for the national press, bloggers are free to say exactly as they please.

Small publishers, debut writers, authors with indies are all reliant on book bloggers now. This is partly because the national media is devoting less and less space to books and partly because the big names (both writers and publishers) dominate the little space that still exists. I can’t put it better than my publicist, Natalie Clark, at Impress: ‘Book bloggers are one of the best things to happen to the book industry….Nothing beats real readers talking about books.’

Natalie has become personal friends with many book bloggers and this brings me to my last point. Because I follow so many book bloggers, I’m sometimes witness to their Twitter chats. Although they span counties and, sometimes, countries, they communicate between themselves constantly. Even with their enormous TBR piles, they find time to look after each other. While the world today seems rife with competitiveness, there is none of that in this community. Book bloggers would appear to be some of the kindest, politest and most generous people I’ve ever come across. They cheer each other up, they support each other, they make each other (and me) laugh. Fellow writer, Louisa Treger, had the same experience: ‘I found them to be a generous, supportive group of people who are passionate about reading and writing.’

Book bloggers have changed the way I buy books. The last few books I’ve selected for my book group have all been discovered on book blogs. I like to think this has helped both indie publishers and lesser known authors. But more importantly, it’s introduced me and my seven book clubbers to novels and worlds we might otherwise not have found.

When my first blog review came out (and she knows who she is), I cried. With relief, with gratitude, with shock. Debut writers (perhaps all writers) never know if their book is any good, if anyone will like it, if it’s worth the RRP printed on the back, if our years of labour were all in vain. I had my first full night of sleep for a very long time after that blog review. Debut author, Lyn Farrell, had a similar experience: ‘My book dealt with a very difficult subject and I was very worried about how it would be received. When bloggers’ reviews started coming in, I cried with relief and joy. It made my ten years of writing worth every minute.’

The Joyce Girl is about to go into its third re-print. The opening pages will contain several review quotes from book blogs and I’ll be sending signed copies to each of the bloggers quoted. To see your names alongside authors and reviewers from the national press will make me very happy.

Book bloggers everywhere – I salute you!


Many debut book awards/competitions (including the Impress Prize) ask for a synopsis.  Agents and publishers always request a synopsis as well as supporting information.  Some judges, agents, publishers may look at this before they look at your sample chapters. Some may even reject – or, less likely, accept – your book on the basis of the synopsis and supporting material alone.  For this reason, you need to spend plenty of time writing the perfect synopsis and producing a page of faultless supporting material. Both require considerable thought. Both require repeated editing and proofing.

In my previous life I was a judge on a couple of awards in the music industry.  Entrants were asked to provide a page of facts and figures on their submission and a portfolio of supporting material.  I and my fellow judges then spent a long day in a small room reading the material over copious cups of coffee.  This experience taught me several things which I used when I began entering writing competitions.  I’m going to share them here.  I’m also revealing the synopsis (contains spoilers) and supporting proposal I submitted to Impress two years’ ago.  In my experience, it always helps to see an example (although mine is only an example, of course.)

So. Tips.

Follow the entry guidelines at

I’d suggest roughly halving your 1,000 words between the synopsis and the other supporting material, unless you have good reason not to.

Your synopsis will inevitably include spoilers.  Don’t try and keep the judges guessing – this is not the point of a synopsis. A synopsis should include a clear and concise outline of the plot or narrative, with brief mention of the primary characters and their roles, the setting/location and the time period. Think of your synopsis as the What, Where, When, Who and Why.

Your synopsis should also make your book/novel sound intriguing, while remaining factual. Use strong, interesting language to help counter the potentially pedestrian nature of a synopsis.

A synopsis doesn’t need to include every plot point.  Show the arc of the story/book and pick out the highlights (the big scenes or the major plot points).

Use paragraphing carefully.  A synopsis will often be scanned, so long dense paragraphs should be avoided. Each paragraph should cover a different element of the story/narrative.

Do include the word count of your book and do submit it with a title (even if you’re not sure it’s quite the right one).

Your Book Proposal should include all the information listed in the entry guidelines.

Your author biography should be short and relevant to your submission.  The judges don’t need to know every job you’ve had or every examination you’ve passed, only the relevant ones. They may want to know that you’re committed to writing, so do include any previous writing successes and experience.

Do include any research you’ve undertaken.

Do include any personal angles – judges, agents and publishers will always want to know what impelled you to write your book.

The Rationale and Market Readership sections of your Book Proposal need to demonstrate the market potential of your book.  Who will your readers be?  How might you reach them? What are the marketing opportunities for your book? What media angles might there be? Does it lend itself to film? Audio? Overseas markets? You don’t need to produce a marketing plan (your publisher does that).  But you do need to show, in a short paragraph, that you understand the themes in your book and who they will appeal to.  If you’re not sure, go back to your beta readers and ask them.

Lastly, don’t forget to make sure your document is clearly presented.

Then proof, and proof, and proof again. I’d also suggest getting another person to proof it too. As I said on my last post, you can never proof enough. Your synopsis and supporting material (like your sample chapter) should be free of grammatical and spelling errors, awkward sentences, strings of clichés etc.

I mentioned in my last post (scroll down), that I submitted my novel, The Joyce Girl, with a title I thought was more interesting. It later reverted to its original title – but this is why the synopsis below talks about My Perfect Mind.



Note: now termed Book Proposal in the Impress guidelines)


MY PERFECT MIND – SYNOPSIS (116,000 words)


Set in Paris, Zurich and London, between 1928 and 1935, My Perfect Mind tells the fictionalised story of Lucia Joyce’s* affair with a young Samuel Beckett – and the devastating effects of its abrupt and unexpected ending. At this time, Lucia was making a name for herself as a dancer. Talented and ambitious, she trained with many of the most famous dancers of her time, but her family resented her career and wanted her to stop dancing. She saw marriage (initially to Beckett) as the solution. My Perfect Mind is the story of Lucia’s battle for love and for a life as a dancer.

The novel opens in 1935 in the Zurich home of Dr Jung, where Lucia was sent by her father to take ‘the talking cure’. Dr Jung, believing her to be the victim of incest, asks her to write an account of her relationships with men – and in this way she tells her story.

The story switches back to Paris, 1928, when Lucia first glimpsed Samuel Beckett through a restaurant window.  He later became a daily visitor to the Joyce home, where he worked for her father. Lucia fell deeply in love, believing she was destined to marry Beckett (her father was convinced she had clairvoyant powers).  Meanwhile, all of avant-garde Paris believed them to be engaged – and Beckett appeared to reciprocate Lucia’s feelings and ardour. But she was deceived by him and, in 1930, Beckett was banned from the Joyce home. Lucia began private drawing classes with Alexander Calder** and, on the rebound from Beckett, had a passionate affair with Calder before he too disappeared abruptly from her life. She later found out that both Beckett and Calder had been involved with other women.

Shortly after the ending of her affairs with Beckett and Calder, Lucia discovered she was a bastard, that her parents had never married. Devastated, she started to wind down her stage-dancing career, believing her new role was as Muse to her father as he wrote Finnegans Wake.  But this role couldn’t satisfy her desire to dance and her need for love. Crushed between her own ambitions and desires, and her parents’ needs and envy, she began to struggle, emotionally and mentally. Things came to a head on her father’s 50th birthday when her brother forcibly removed her to a sanatorium.

In a last-ditch attempt to save Lucia’s sanity, her parents (secretly) arranged a marriage for her with a Russian-Jewish banker – but she still loved Beckett and the new engagement propelled her deeper into despair. Finally, her brother tricked her into going to an institution for the mentally ill, where he then had her committed for life.

The novel ends with Lucia’s last session of psychoanalysis where she finally relives a horrific childhood memory – the day she and her brother discovered the infamous pornographic letters of her parents (which also happened to be the day her father realised he was going blind).

An epilogue tells, briefly and factually, the rest of her life story, while a postscript outlines what happened to all the characters in the novel after 1935.


*Only daughter of James Joyce, and his chambermaid ‘wife’, Nora Barnacle.

** Celebrated American sculptor and inventor of the mobile.





Contact details

Annabel Abbs (My Perfect Mind)

Tel (m) xxx

Email: xxx

Annabel Abbs Biography

Annabel grew up in Bristol, Wales, Herefordshire and East Sussex – the daughter of two writers.  She studied English Literature and History at the University of East Anglia and then completed a Masters in Marketing and Statistics at Kingston University.  She started her career as a copy writer in an advertising agency then co-founded a marketing agency which she left after fifteen years to spend time with her four young children and to write.  She currently blogs at and writes short stories and novels.

Rationale for My Perfect Mind

Annabel Abbs studied Joyce at University but knew nothing of Lucia. Two years ago, she read the Talbots’ prize-winning graphic novel, Dotter of her Father’s Eyes, for her book club and realised Lucia’s story needed telling.

As the daughter of an impoverished, struggling poet, Annabel spent her childhood in circumstances not dissimilar to Lucia’s (travelling and moving school/home/language, with a father intensely engaged with his inner world). So Lucia’s story resonated at a personal level.  As the mother of three daughters, Annabel also wanted to explore the father/daughter relationship through the lens of Lucia’s story.

Annabel’s research involved travelling repeatedly to Paris, Zurich and Trieste as well as reading over 100 books on the Joyce circle, dance, Paris, Jung, Beckett, Calder and the 1920s.  She re-read all Joyce’s works and learned the Margaret Morris modern dance technique that Lucia trained in.  The more she read, the angrier she became – and the more determined that Lucia should be given her rightful place in history.  Thus, the first draft of My Perfect Mind was written in an insomniac frenzy of outrage.

My Perfect Mind – Market Readership

Literary but accessible historical fiction, appealing to a wide audience (perhaps more female?) and anyone interested in Joyce, Beckett, Calder, 1920s Paris. Set in Paris, Zurich and London with flashbacks to Trieste and Ireland, and with a cast of Irish and American characters, there could be a strong international market for My Perfect Mind. The additional themes of mental health, dance and psychoanalysis could open new reader markets too. While the themes of parenting and father/daughter relationships provide further angles.





This year I’m on the judging panel of the Impress Prize for New Writers, an award set up by Impress Books to discover and publish a debut writer. It’s eighteen months since I won the 2015 prize.  Since then my biopic novel about James Joyce’s daughter, The Joyce Girl, has been published in several countries, with many more to follow.  It’s been reviewed in national and international press, magazines and blogs.  It was selected for pitch at the Berlin Film Festival and written about in The Hollywood Reporter.  And I’ve travelled from London to Paris and on to Sydney and Istanbul, to discuss creative writing and my novel.  When I entered the Impress Prize I’d never been on a writing course.  I didn’t have a drawer of unpublished novels. I never expected to win.  But I did – and you can.

So, it’s time to brush up your manuscript (fiction or non-fiction) and enter the 2017 Impress Prize for New Writers. Before I won the Impress prize, I entered several writing competitions for both my novel and my short stories.  The short and long-listings were vital in encouraging me to continue. When I started looking for an agent, those long-listings and short-listings carried more weight, I suspect, than anything else on my (rather sparse) CV.

I have always read, widely and voraciously, from all genres – experimental and poetry right through to thrillers and YA, and everything else in between.  But what it is, exactly, that makes me want to turn the page and read on? And why do I sometimes put a book down and never go back to it? For everyone thinking of entering this year’s Impress Prize (or any writing award for that matter), I’ve tried to shape my thoughts as a series of short tips.  I’ll write more on each one over the coming weeks, so stay tuned.  These are only my thoughts  and my fellow judges may feel differently, but I hope they help.

  1. My first tip: think (again and again) about how best to engage your reader from the very beginning.

You need to engage your reader on the first page, ideally in the first paragraph, ideally in the first sentence. This can be achieved in several ways: an intriguing character; beautiful or unusual writing; a powerfully evoked sense of place; the feeling that something important or exciting is about to unfold.  The exploration of an idea or an interesting theme can also persuade someone to read on, if the quality of writing is high enough.  Polish your first chapter, over and over. Keep rewriting it.  Ask yourself: Is this the right place to start? Or could the story start elsewhere? Is this the right character to open the story?  If there’s a prologue, is it necessary? And, most importantly of all, is this compelling enough? I rewrote the opening chapter of The Joyce Girl hundreds (yes, really) of times, starting the story in several different places before I made my final choice. Once you’re happy with your opening chapter, find as many beta readers as you can.  Your first question should be: Did they want to turn the page?  If not, you need to identify what’s fresh and original in your book and bring it to the fore in a different way.

  1. My second tip: polish and proofread, and polish and proofread, and polish and proofread again. And again…

A wonderfully engaging opening chapter can go to waste if there’s a typo, a spelling mistake, grammatical errors, unintentionally shifting tenses or clunky sentences.  Your grammar must be perfect (unless, perhaps, your submission is highly experimental), likewise your spelling.  Proofread your entry as many times as possible.  The Joyce Girl was proofread by three professional proof-readers, two professional editors, and numerous proofreads from me – it still went to press with a couple of typos. You can never proofread enough.

  1. My third tip: Make sure the ‘Voice’ works consistently and compellingly throughout your novel (particularly for fiction).

Ask your beta readers to think carefully about this, as they read. Publishers today are very keen on ‘Voice’.  And for the debut writer, finding a voice of one’s own can be challenging. So think long and hard about your authorial voice.  It needs to be yours (‘authentic’ is the word much loved by publishers), with its own rhythms and cadence, its own style.  While you’re honing your voice, don’t neglect the voice of your protagonist.  This is particularly important if you’re writing entirely in the first person where both voices often merge into one.  The voice needs to be consistent, credible and interesting.  It needs to promise the reader a journey that will illuminate, beguile or transport, for example.

Watch your tenses and watch your use of backstory. Tenses should be consistent and backstory shouldn’t impede the narrative flow. For every line of backstory, ask yourself is this necessary now or can it be placed elsewhere in the story. Oh, and watch your use of the pluperfect (past perfect) tense. If you’re shifting back and forth in time, check your tenses aren’t hampering the reader’s ability to follow the plot.  I rewrote most of the The Joyce Girl in the past tense after tying myself in ‘plot knots’ using the present tense.

Ask your beta readers to think carefully about these points as they read. And do get your novel beta-read by as many people as possible.

  1. My fourth tip: replace all those clichés with more interesting language.

Leave sufficient time for a cliché edit, where you line-edit your entry removing and replacing every cliché.  Challenge yourself to find a more original way of saying or describing something. Don’t leave this until the last minute – being original takes time and effort.  All writers use clichés at times, particularly debuts who are often struggling with other issues.  But a string of clichés in the first chapter won’t get you to the shortlist. The only time clichés are acceptable is in the dialogue of a cliché-ridden character where the use of clichés informs the character.

  1. My fifth tip: choose your title carefully.

A good title can go a long way in piquing a reader’s interest. Give particular thought to your title.  Does it stand out?  Is it new (check on Amazon)? Does it promise to cover an appealing subject? Does it reflect the ‘Voice’ of the book? Could it be better or more pertinent?  The title you choose won’t necessarily be the published title – I submitted The Joyce Girl with a more interesting title (or so I thought) even though it later reverted back to its original title.

  1. My sixth tip: give yourself plenty of time to allow your writing to ‘settle’.

All writing needs to ‘settle.’ Don’t dash your entry off at the last minute and rush it in, expecting to win a prize.  Most of you will have been living with your book for some time.  Even so, if you’re doing a major or final edit, factor in some ‘settling’ time, so you can look over your work with fresh eyes before the entry deadline.  Writing a book is a very intensive process and writers frequently become so close to their text, they can’t see the wood for the trees (cliché but you know what I mean).  You need to be able to step away from your book for a period of time so that you can come back for a final edit and still meet the competition deadline.

It’s often only after a break that you spot over-writing and repetition. I cut 2000 words of repetition from an early draft of my novel (yes, just repetition).  And I still have to guard against purple prose/over-writing, which is a personal foible of mine.  It’s much easier to kill your darlings after a break than it is in the white heat of creativity.

  1. My seventh tip: professionally format your document and follow the formatting guide.

Lastly, formatting.  Follow the submission guidance on the Impress website.  Professional formatting makes a document easier to read.  It also shows the judges that you want your work taken seriously, that you care about your work and your readers.

All of the above tips apply equally to your synopsis.  Writing a short, clear and compelling synopsis takes time.  I’ll post more on this later and I’ll share the synopsis and supporting material I submitted two years’ ago.

I recently read a very lucid post, on the most common mistakes of novice writers, from Emma Darwin.  Do read, and then edit your manuscript (again), with her wise words top-of-mind:

Good luck!


Today is the anniversary of Lucia Joyce’s death (pictured above is one of the last photographs taken of her at St Andrew’s Hospital).  She died on the 12th December 1982, aged 75, after spending 50 years in mental asylums and hospitals (see my last post).  It seems a fitting day to consider some of the other ‘mad’ women of modernism.

Janet Frame, a New Zealand writer often described (co-incidentally) as ‘Joycean’, was born 17 years after Lucia. Like Lucia, Janet experienced an emotional breakdown in her early 20s, triggered by a combination of her feelings of inadequacy and close family bereavement.  Like Lucia, her breakdown was mistaken for schizophrenia. Janet was locked up in a mental hospital for the best part of a decade, narrowly missing a leucotomy (which could have left her as a vegetable) only after her Doctor read about the publication of her first novel in a newspaper. Janet continued to believe she was mentally ill until she came to London where psychiatric doctors reversed her diagnosis: there was nothing wrong with her. Janet Frame’s powerful autobiography describes and explores this process, as well as examining her compulsion to write.  Her description of life inside a 1940s asylum (a time when Lucia was also incarcerated) is a good indicator of the experience Lucia may have had.  While Lucia’s voice was silenced, Janet went on to write extensively about her experience. She later credited her survival to her writing.

These were some of the lines I underlined in An Angel at My Table and which helped me understand the brutal realities of life inside many asylums at this time:

“As a patient, I was again part of a group, yet more deeply alone, not even a creviced ‘I’. I became ‘she’, one of ‘them’.”

“I felt utterly alone.  There was no one to talk to.  As in other mental hospitals, you were locked up, you did as you were told or else, and that was that… I felt as if there was no place on earth for me.”

“The attitude of those in charge … was that of reprimand and punishment, with certain forms of medical treatment being threatened as punishment for failure to ‘co-operate’ where ‘not co-operate’ might mean a refusal to… go to the doorless lavatory … and urinate in public while suffering verbal abuse by the nurse for being unwilling.”

Throughout this horrific account, Janet Frame talks of her feelings of “panic at being locked up by those who reminded me constantly that I was there for life.”

Sadly the experiences of Lucia Joyce and Janet Frame were also the experiences of numerous other women of this period. In The Joyce Girl, I wrote briefly about Zelda Fitzgerald whose experience of mental breakdown and incarceration has been widely and movingly documented.  But since then I’ve discovered an extraordinary book called Heroines by Kate Zambreno (thanks to a review of The Joyce Girl in Open Democracy by Sian Norris  For anyone wanting to know more about what Zambreno terms ‘the mad wives of modernism’, I highly recommend Heroines.  Zambreno combines feminist polemic with a personal memoir of what it means to be a wife, all wrapped up in a justifiably outraged examination of how (among others) Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivienne Eliot (wife of TS) and Jane Bowles (wife of Paul) started out collaborating with their modernist husbands only to end their lives locked away in asylums (Zelda and Viv) or dying, ill and alcoholic, in a Spanish clinic (Jane) – all overshadowed by their husbands.  Zambreno writes of how their work and lives were plundered by the very men who then garnered the accolades and glory that could (and perhaps should) have belonged to their wives.

Zambreno explores many themes: patriarchy, wifedom, exclusion, ostracism, control, isolation.  She is particularly eloquent on the many ways in which women (specifically those who wish to create) have been marginalised and silenced.  And she is quick to make the connection between the rage of creative, silenced women and their later ‘madness’: ‘Where is it supposed to go? All of this fury? A woman’s anger: it must be contained, repressed, diffused’.

Zambreno also explores the competition and rivalry that existed between ‘modernist’ women.  She wonders why Zelda and Hadley, and Virginia Woolf and Vivienne Eliot were unable to become friends, why they failed to support each other, and what might have happened if they had. There is no record of Lucia and Zelda meeting, but in The Joyce Girl I was able to hint at an almost-friendship.  I too wondered what might have happened if they had become friends. Women have always been encouraged to view each other as rivals and competitors. Historically, we competed for the best husbands, the best chances of survival for ourselves and our offspring. Thankfully, this is changing. It’s another issue that Zambreno muses on… What if?

Heroines is a harrowing, shocking but important story, reflected deftly in Zambreno’s staccato, punctured prose. For anyone wanting to know more about what was really lurking beneath the sequinned sparkle of the roaring 20s, Heroines is the book to read.

In my last post, I recommended Lisa Appignanesi’s Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors.  To that I must add Heroines and An Angel at my Table (obviously) and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath which I’ve recently re-read and found even more powerful the second time round. I’m now reading Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss, which also explores female mental health, the role of women and ‘wifedom’ (not to mention the realities of asylum life) in the late Victorian era.

Sadly, Lucia left no writings.  Luckily, Zelda Fitzgerald did.  Zelda’s Save me the Waltz was instrumental in my understanding of the stamina required to begin a late career as a ballerina.  I drew heavily on her novel when I was researching Lucia’s experiences with Madame Egorova.  Tonight I shall be re-reading Save me the Waltz, in memory of Lucia, Zelda and all the other ‘mad’ women of modernism.


On a radio interview yesterday I was asked why Lucia Joyce spent 47 years in a mental asylum. At events, I’m routinely asked if Lucia’s condition would be diagnosed differently today.  They’re good questions, particularly given how frequently her doctors disagreed.  Lucia’s biography and Joyce’s letters show that doctor after doctor grappled to understand precisely what was wrong with her.  In Lisa Appignanesi’s deeply researched book Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 to the Present, she explains that Schizophrenia was a label routinely attached to women whose conditions weren’t immediately clear. Having charted the origins and rise of the word (coined by Dr.s  Kraepelin and Bleuler at the Swiss Burgholzi Hospital), she writes: ‘Bleuler suggested renaming (dementia praecox) as ‘schizophrenia’ from the Greek ‘splitting’ and ‘soul’ or ‘mind’.  It was intended as a dynamic concept … (it) is difficult to diagnose since its most visible characteristics… fall within the spectrum of health. Amongst these he cites: indifference, lack of energy, unsociability, stubbornness, moodiness.’

With such a broad range of symptoms, schizophrenia became a readily used term for women presenting with a variety of characteristics.  Appignanesi adds: ‘the term spread beyond the borders of Switzerland, though its use continued to be as erratic as the condition: sometimes it masked as hysteria … at other times it merged with the older notion of breakdown.’ It’s a label that has stuck with Lucia, despite evidence to the contrary and despite the disagreement of her biographer, Carol Loeb Schloss, who famously described her as ‘no lunatic.’

Interestingly, in her chapter on schizophrenia, Appignanesi includes Sabina Spielrein (both a patient and pupil of Jung) whose cure ‘took less than a year’, as well as Zelda Fitzgerald and … Lucia Joyce. Like me, she draws attention to the role of Nora, saying Nora ‘seemed to have raised Lucia with more resentment than love.’  For anyone interested in the history of mental health I recommend this compelling account of female ‘madness’. But let’s get back to Lucia…

In 1935, Lucia’s case was discussed by three doctors, one of whom was Dr Delmas, in whose French clinic she was to stay for over ten years.  He was clear that neither schizophrenia nor dementia praecox were the correct diagnoses.  Nor did he think she was incurable.  In a letter to Harriet Weaver (Joyce‘s Patron), Paul Leon (Joyce’s assistant) described the combined diagnosis of the three doctors as: ‘mental disequilibrium with episodic schisoidic signs and recurrent cyclic impulsiveness and with a pronounced…vengeance against nurses.’  This was later simplified to a version of manic depression, which today would be called bipolar disorder. Re-reading accounts of Lucia’s ‘episodes’ and discussing them with therapist and medic friends, it’s likely that were she alive today, this is the diagnosis she would receive.  It’s also something that many creatives and performers (from Carrie Fisher to Catherine Zeta-Jones) have struggled with and now discuss openly. Were Lucia to be diagnosed today, my therapist and medic friends assure me she would have every chance of living an almost normal life.

The nurses Lucia raged against were those that, just months earlier in a nursing home, had kept her in solitary confinement because they didn’t want their regular patients on ‘rest cures’ to be disrupted. Lucia’s abiding dislike of incarceration is apparent in many of her so-called episodes.  Sadly, although this was only 80 years ago, strait-jacketing was a routine treatment used without discrimination.

In Dr Delmas’ clinic, Lucia was visited every week by her father, never by her mother and only once by her brother, Giorgio. So great was the fury she directed at Giorgio that he never accompanied his father again. Meanwhile, the Joyce family were falling apart ( Nora and Joyce were trying to have Giorgio’s wife, Helen, certified as insane – she was showing depressive signs as Giorgio attempted to leave her and was later diagnosed as…. schizophrenic), Europe was on the brink of collapse, and Finnegans Wake had stalled.

Lucia was still in Delmas’ clinic in Ivry-sur-Seine when the French invaded France. The Joyces moved to Zurich to sit out WW2 but Joyce was unable to organise a transfer for Lucia.  When Joyce died in 1941, Lucia was left to read about it in a newspaper.  From then on, she had neither letters nor visitors.  We have very little information about this period in Lucia’s life and can only imagine how it must have been.  Her biographer says ‘Occasionally she erupted into violence but no one thought about the causes of such colossal rage.’  One family friend went to visit in 1951, after the death of Doctor Delmas, and reported that Lucia had long periods of quietness, often followed by an unexpected, violent rage – during which she was straitjacketed.

It was at this point that Joyce’s old patron (whom he’d made the executor of his literary estate), 75 year-old Harriet Weaver, stepped in. Realising that neither Giorgio nor Nora had any intention of looking after Lucia, Weaver had her relocated to St Andrews Hospital, a private asylum in Northamptonshire.  From here, Weaver could supervise Lucia herself.  An old friend of Joyce’s called Maria Jolas took Lucia from Paris to Ruislip airfield, where a doctor met her and took her to St Andrews Hospital. Here she lived for the next thirty years. Lucia had no possessions when she arrived in England – she carried with her nothing more than a packet of cigarettes, an identity card, an emergency card (see below) and some French francs. She was forty-four and a shadow of her former self.

When Harriet Weaver died in 1961, her extraordinary god-daughter, Jane Lidderdale, took over as Lucia’s legal guardian and primary carer, visiting her, organising her finances and investments, making sure her birthdays were recognised and that she had the clothes and personal items she needed.

In the sad tale of Lucia’s life, few people come out well.  Those who cared for her in the second half of her life, unpaid, unrelated to her, and largely unknown, deserve our recognition and appreciation.

Ms Weaver and Ms Lidderdale: I salute you for your generosity, your selflessness and your kindness.




A year ago today, I was pushing my bicycle along a busy London street on my way to an appointment with an osteopath. I was in such acute pain I could no longer sit for more than a few minutes at a time.  Even sitting on a bicycle was agony.  I had just dismounted and started pushing my bike when my phone rang.  If my phone rings during ‘school’ hours it’s normally because one of my children has stabbed themselves in the eye with a pencil or vomited over a teacher.  As I answered, my brain was whirring through how I could possibly delay child collection long enough to have my osteopath appointment.

But it wasn’t the brisk voice of the school nurse on the line.  It was a very excited Rachel Singleton from Impress.  Telling me I’d won the Impress Prize for 2015. I was so surprised (I think discombobulated is the word) that I said something inane like ‘What?’ She repeated it, as juggernauts and London buses flew past, and the hour of my osteopath appointment ticked by. I asked if I could call her back.

That phone call changed my life.  As I write this, I know there are many hugely talented writers wondering if they’re going to be lucky enough to get a call from Rachel on October 5th.  This post is for them – and for anyone else hoping to break through into the hugely competitive world of fiction-writing.

Firstly I should say that not all Impress winners are now full-time writers – winning the prize is no guarantee of success.  But I am now a full-time writer.  And this is my story.  I hope it will be yours too.

In the same year I won the Impress prize, I was longlisted for the Caledonia Novel Award and the Bath Novel Award (these are both brilliantly organised awards doing incredible things for aspiring writers and you can read my experiences of them at  and and I’d also been shortlisted for the Spotlight First Novel Award.  Awards are (in my view) the only way writers, who don’t have a string of prestigious creative writing courses under their belts or contacts in the industry, can now break through.

My first tip?  Enter awards.  Keep polishing your manuscript and keep entering.  Why? Because agents take note when you’re on a longlist or shortlist – and you need an agent.   There are no better judges of your writing than those on the judging panels of novel awards. These people generously give their time and expertise. Not only during the award process but also later in one’s writing career.  Both Caroline Ambrose of the Bath Novel Award and Wendy Bough of the Caledonia Novel Award gave me vital support as my novel was launched. I salute them!

Things moved very quickly after that phone call.  I signed a contract (which my newly-acquired agent negotiated) and looked over Rachel’s launch and marketing plans.  I then worked with Impress on an extensive edit, tightening up the characterisation of my main character, removing flabby scenes and adding new scenes. I loved this process – it was the first time someone had gone through my novel in this much detail, word-by-word and line-by-line. From there it went to a professional proof reader and then to another proof reader. Meanwhile there were decisions to be made about the cover, about the Afterword, about permissions I needed to obtain, and about the launch. Rachel made it clear I needed to have a presence on social media.  So I had to get a website organised, an FB author page, a Twitter account. I had to have my photo professionally taken. I had to ask people I didn’t know to read the manuscript and consider providing a quote for the jacket. I had to organise a launch.  And I had to start keeping financial accounts too.  You’ll be doing all this alongside your day job.

Meanwhile my amazing agent began selling the rights to The Joyce Girl round the world.  It went to auction in Australia and New Zealand where it was bought by Hachette (the world’s largest publishing company).  It was sold to a big publisher in Germany called Aufbau Verlag and more recently to a Turkish publisher. It’s now on submission in the US/ Canada and in France, Italy and Spain.  It was also snapped up by a book-to-film agent who got it in the hands of 12 film producers, including several in Hollywood.

My second tip? Get yourself an agent.  They won’t be beating a path to your door so you’ll need to work as hard at this as you’ve worked on your novel. Be under no illusions – being a writer is mostly hard graft and tenacity.

I’m realistic enough to know The Joyce Girl may never become a film.  But all of the above mean I can now call myself a writer.  My novel was written, over a period of two years, entirely in secret. It was a year before I even confessed to my husband.  Being able to tell people that I’m a bona fide writer has been one of the biggest life-changers of the last year.  I now write regularly for magazines (on a wide variety of subjects), I’ve done live and recorded interviews on radio, I have a speaking schedule at literary festivals – which includes Paris and Sydney. And (ironically, perhaps) I’ve been asked to run writing classes.

This is the glamorous bit.  But it didn’t come easily. The run-up to my launch was very stressful.  I spent sleepless nights worrying about being sued, about missed typos, about where to have the launch – would anyone turn up? What about my speech? – and stressing about what the neighbours or my kids would think when they read my final (shocking and explicit) chapter.  And then there was the review process to contend with: what if it got bad reviews? What if no one liked it? I’ll be honest – on at least two occasions I considered cancelling the launch and going back to my old life. Impress persuaded me to hold my nerve.

My third tip? Be prepared for going public.  Putting yourself ‘out there’ means exactly that.  A novel (particularly your debut) can be very exposing and personal. You may get bad reviews.  You may get no reviews.  You may get negative comments on Amazon or Goodreads. I’ve been lucky enough to have very positive reviews.  But I had one review from a Joyce academic that was particularly unpleasant.   The great thing about being a writer is that every emotion and every experience can be chalked up as material for a future novel.  Your motto from now on? What doesn’t kill you makes you a better writer.

Once the launch of my novel was over (and yes, it was one of the best nights of my life!), the real work began.  Take note: this is when the going gets tough.  Impress is a small indie without the budget of a big publisher.  They were 100% behind my novel, but I worked very, very hard to support their marketing efforts.  I’m only three months in, so it’s a work in progress.  But I now spend much of my time thinking up feature ideas, scouring newspapers and magazines for angles and opportunities, writing blog posts, updating my website/FB pages, replying to letters I’ve had (yes, I’ve actually had fan mail), preparing talks, attending local book groups that are reading The Joyce Girl – and so forth.

My last tip?  Start thinking about how you can help Impress market your novel in advance. Be prepared to spend hundreds of hours promoting your novel when you’d far rather be researching your next book.  Identify book bloggers that might be interested, think about how best to approach newspapers and magazines, note literary festivals near you, identify the right editor on your local press, think of places you could give talks or do book signings, jot down authors in the same genre who might be persuaded to provide quotes for your book jacket.  And you’ll need to start work on the second novel too.  Oh, and invest in a decent chair! You’re going to spend a lot of time in it and you don’t want to end up with a very expensive bad back (take it from me…)

It’s been an incredible year.  Thank you, Impress.  Good luck to all the Impress shortlist – and to anyone else waiting with bated breath for that life-changing phone call from a competition judge.  If you don’t win this time, keep editing and keep entering.

I can’t wait to read the winning novel!


The question I get asked most often about The Joyce Girl is: ‘What’s fact and what’s fiction?’

It’s a valid question and, for all those readers who don’t have the time or inclination to wade through multiple biographies and accounts of the time, I shall try and provide some further insight. Please note: this post includes spoilers. Read no further if you do not want to know what happens in the novel.

I should first say that my original aim was to construct an interior life for Lucia, for my own benefit.  I wanted to understand her, to be her, to experience her world.  But getting a sense of her was very difficult for the reasons given in my Acknowledgements, namely the lack of primary sources and the loss and destruction of her letters, medical notes etc.  A reviewer of Schloss’s biography of Lucia (To Dance in the Wake) said, in 2004, that it may have worked better as a fictional account. For reasons I still don’t fully understand, I felt compelled to take up the challenge.

Wherever fact was available I tried to use it (with a few exceptions which I’ll come to).  However, all facts are open to interpretation and during my research I came across discrepancies, omissions, disagreements and very differing interpretations. While some things were well documented and universally agreed, others were shrouded in mystery, omitted entirely or simply disagreed on.  The state of Lucia’s mind in the earlier years, for example, was one such area, as were her relationships with both Beckett and Calder.

I’d already decided to write the novel from Lucia’s point of view. This was not a conscious decision that I spent months mulling over.  I simply felt that her world needed to be seen through her own eyes. But what do I mean by ‘her own eyes’? With so little material from Lucia (and very little about her), constructing an inner life for her was extremely difficult. She was very elusive.  Reports of her during this period were minimal and contradictory.  She was very complicated – at times naïve and innocent and at other times worldly and brazen, for instance.  Joyce’s descriptions of her didn’t always match the (invariably short) descriptions of others. But what really struck me was how little there was of her. Eventually I put together a rough portrait and used my imagination to fill the gaping holes. Inevitably, therefore, Lucia is partly me.

Having said that, I initially found some of her decisions difficult to understand.  For example, why didn’t she just leave home? I don’t know the answer. Who does? But the longer I lived inside her head (or my version of her head), the more clearly I felt her to be bound by an inarticulate sense of duty and by the bond that existed between her and her father.  Interestingly this bond is rarely questioned – Joyce’s many letters are a moving testament to this.

With all historical fiction we have to imagine ourselves living in a very different time with different constraints and expectations.  Lucia was subject to the moral expectations of the time, even as she lived in bohemian Paris. And this contradiction intrigued me too. The old-fashioned Irish values of the Joyces seemed at odds both with the radical nature of Joyce’s writing and the avant-garde practices of the circles in which they moved. It seemed to reflect Nora and James too – unmarried but pretending to be married. How would Lucia have experienced this contradiction? Again, I was forced to imagine it. But as a young woman, I imagine she would have seen it as hypocrisy.  There was sufficient evidence to show that both she and Giorgio were extremely unhappy when they found themselves to be technically illegitimate.  I expect Joyce and Nora were simply protecting them – but I doubt it would have felt like that to Lucia and my novel is about experiencing things as she might have done.

All the characters are based on real people who I studied by reading multiple biographies, collected letters and accounts of 1920s Paris.  One character was an amalgamation of two characters (I grafted the more colourful character of Yva Fernandez, the sister of Emile and the first French translator of Dubliners, on to Stella Steyn) after I decided to reduce the cast. Even Gaston (a waiter who appears at the end) is based on a real bar man at La Coupole who was called – yes, Gaston! And yes, he was allegedly very good-natured.

All the reviews of Lucia’s dance performances are from actual newspapers of the time.  Most of the specific events (her performances, Nora’s operation, Giorgio’s singing debut, Joyce’s book launch, Calder’s circus, the eye operations, the dinner with Beckett and his friend etc) and all the dates and places are historically accurate (by which I mean they are sourced from letters, accounts of the time or biographies). The picture on the cover of the UK version of The Joyce Girl (although not on any others) shows the real Lucia dancing in the competition described in Chapter Nine, the outcome of which is also factually accurate. Having said that, I fictionalised various elements – for example, I do not know if Monsieur Jean Borlin was in attendance that night, but I do know that audiences sometimes threw flowers on stage after a performance.

What happened between Lucia and Beckett is mostly imagined (although its denouement is rooted in fact as recounted in Deidre Bair’s biography of Beckett), but I based it on comments unearthed from various sources and I used actual events to string the narrative together.  For example, although Beckett never spoke of the relationship, a very close Joyce family friend later said, ‘Beckett may have slept with Lucia. At that time he was a heavy drinker. He had some interest in her, perhaps to the point of copulation.’  Beckett’s most recent biographer (James Knowlson) has written about Beckett’s ‘sexual hunger’, noting that he visited brothels, and conducted discreet affairs throughout his life. Beckett’s novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, appears to use Lucia as a model for one of the protagonist’s lovers. Finally, some of Beckett’s words in The Joyce Girl are taken, almost verbatim, from an account Peggy Guggenheim wrote of the Beckett-Lucia affair in her autobiography, Out of this World. From her Northampton asylum, Lucia apparently talked frequently of their relationship. However, the scene where he interrupts her dancing in her underwear is entirely made up – at the instigation of my editor.

This is an appropriate point to mention that some agents turned down an early version of the novel for being too ‘restricted by facts’ or for taking on ’iconic and sacrosanct figures.’  One agent said I would be accused of trespassing on hallowed ground. Another said no one would be interested in reading about Joyce because he was too obscure. Fortunately this hasn’t turned out to be the case and many of the most enthusiastic readers have been people who previously knew nothing of Joyce, Beckett or Jung.  It was never my intention to produce an inaccessible novel.  Quite the reverse.  Given the inaccessibility of Lucia, of Joyce’s later works, of some of Beckett’s works, even of Jung, I was determined to make The Joyce Girl accessible to as many as possible. I digress…

What happened between Lucia and Calder is also imagined. Sources (including Brenda Maddox’s biography of Nora) show that Joyce and Nora were uncomfortable with how she behaved with Calder, while Lucia herself said she had hoped to marry him, but that he disappeared. He was reported as having ‘bedded’ her but there’s no conclusive evidence to show what sort of relationship they had, other than a professional one (drawing teacher and pupil). By trawling through various accounts, I discovered all this took place before and around the time when he left Paris to marry Louisa James. The Lucia-Calder relationship is perhaps the one that stumped me most.  If only he’d made a wire sculpture of her or sketched her – but there was nothing other than her later conviction that she should have married him and her biographer’s suggestion that the relationship had developed into something more.  Of course, relying on Lucia’s later recollections was also fraught.  In the end I decided it was only fair to treat these as fact.

The arranged marriage with Alex Ponisovsky, however, is well-documented – as is his dramatic departure through a window. Indeed, Lucia’s biographer speculates that he made her pregnant and that she subsequently endured an abortion which may have gone wrong.

Lucia had another love affair, after Calder and before Ponisovsky.  I included this in earlier drafts of the novel but then removed it, as it lacked drama and impeded the pace. However, this boyfriend also left Lucia (to return to his ex-wife.) He later said that Lucia had lost her virginity to him – not to Beckett or Calder. But how can we ever know?  My American agent was keen for me to include full copulation between Beckett and Lucia, arguing that it probably did take place (two young, attractive people in close proximity and so forth).  But I felt uncomfortable veering so far with so little evidence. But perhaps she’s right.  Again, we will never know.

Lucia’s meetings with Zelda Fitzgerald are imagined. Her parents had dined with Scott and Zelda, and Scott was known to be deeply in awe of Joyce. Lucia and Zelda danced at the same ballet school at about the same time.  So they may well have passed on the stairs or in the street. But whether they met or not is beside the point.  I introduced Zelda because the trajectory of her career reflected Lucia’s in a tragic and uncanny way.  I wanted readers to think about the dark underbelly of 1920s Paris, about the role of dance as self-expression, about what can happen when creative impulses are thwarted.

The sessions with Jung are, of course, imagined.  However, Joyce refers to the progress of these sessions in some of his letters and we know that he wrote an account of Lucia for Jung.  A few of Jung’s comments survive too, leading me to hope I may have  captured a grain of what passed between them.  Interestingly, when my editor suggested that Jung would never have said things like ‘Stop buggering about’, I was able to cite historical accounts of his ‘talking cure’ written by other patients, in which he’s recorded as saying exactly those words.  And, yes, he did use mandalas (another thing my editor thought unrealistic!). As always, the least likely things are those that are most likely to be true.

The final scene, where Lucia recalls her childhood memory, is entirely imagined. But Lucia’s biographer speculates (as did Jung who probed constantly on this subject) that incest played a part in her breakdown. Joyce did discover that he was going blind when Lucia was a young girl.  And he and Nora did exchange pornographic letters, which Lucia and Giorgio may well have read given the close proximity in which the Joyce family lived. And Lucia did share a bedroom with her parents, for much of the time, until she was eighteen.  In the latest biography of Joyce, Gordon Bowker says, “Some think that the strange sexual tensions in the marriage were disturbing for the children, especially Lucia.”

Some readers have asked about Joyce’s so-called ‘dirty’ letters to Nora . They can be read at

Brenda Maddox wrote extensively about this exchange of letters in her biography of Nora, arguing that they were Nora’s attempt to keep Joyce out of the brothels where Kevin Birmingham speculates (in his The Most Dangerous Book) that Joyce originally contracted syphilis. Of course, it’s possible that Nora enjoyed the letter-writing and had no ulterior motive.  Again, we will never know.

I rather liked Nora – she was down-to-earth, feisty and brave, and I admired her loyalty to Joyce.  Without her, would Joyce have left Ireland?  Would he have managed to produce the body of work he’s known for?  Possibly not.  But in my novel I tried to see Nora through Lucia’s eyes and I wanted to explore the oedipal dynamic that seemed to be at play.  Lucia’s antipathy to Nora has been recorded in multiple accounts. I had to ask myself, repeatedly, why did Lucia so dislike her mother at this point in time?  Why was her rage always and invariably directed at her mother?  My original ending was less shocking than the current ending.  Indeed it was completely different (the novel was rewritten about ten times) – and the source of much discussion between my various agents and editors. Eventually I agreed with them – the ending needed to shock.  Although the final chapter still makes me very uncomfortable, I think it’s the right ending for the novel.

Finally, I confess that my image of Nora was coloured by her refusal to visit Lucia in the last decade of her life.  This appears to be factually accurate (as reported in the biographies of Nora, Lucia and Harriet Weaver), as is the line from a Joyce letter in which he describes Nora and Giorgio wanting to leave Lucia ‘to sink or swim.’ I found it hard to forgive her for that.  Interestingly, Nora’s biographer also felt that Nora hadn’t properly bonded with her daughter, but this chapter was censored and I had to go to Zurich to read it (for more on this:

One of the facts I chose not to use (although I used it in an earlier version of the novel) was the first meeting between Lucia and Beckett.  This may have been through a restaurant window (the Joyce family ate out a lot), but the anecdotal evidence is that Beckett turned up for dinner at the Joyce’s house in the company of Mr McGreevy.  When they arrived, the number of guests came to thirteen, a number deemed unlucky by the very superstitious Joyce.  A guest was asked to leave so that Beckett and McGreevy could join the table, thus avoiding any subsequent ‘bad luck’. Lucia may have been the ‘guest’ that moved or she may have first met Beckett there.  Or perhaps neither. Again, there is no record of her presence (or absence).

Long post, but I hope this sheds some light on (among other things) the relationship between fact and fiction in The Joyce Girl.  There are many excellent biographies and accounts of the Joyce circle for those wanting to know more and I urge you to read them.


While researching and writing The Joyce Girl I came across hundreds of intriguing, flamboyant and inspiring characters, but perhaps none more so than those who taught Lucia to dance.  Unlike my legendary main characters (Joyce, Beckett, Calder and Jung), many of the dancers have disappeared from history.  Few had biographers to record their lives, few feature in history books.  And yet these were frequently the most colourful and extraordinary of individuals.

Lucia Joyce took dance lessons with many of the modern dance pioneers who converged on Paris in the 1920s.  While we know about the writers and artists of jazz-age Paris (thanks to Woody Allen, amongst others!), we know less about the dance scene at this time.  But it was a similarly exciting and radical period for dance. Isadora Duncan had changed the face of dance with her expressive, free-form movement.  Josephine Baker brought jazz dance to a wider public, making it both acceptable and fashionable.  The Ballets Russes, under the inspirational leadership of Diaghilev, based themselves in Paris where they challenged traditional ballet and forged a reputation for exuberant innovation.

In The Joyce Girl, I feature three of Lucia’s many dance teachers.  The character of Monsieur Borlin is based on Jean Borlin, a Swedish ballet dancer and choreographer who arrived in Paris as principal dancer with the Ballets Suedois (the Royal Swedish Ballet).  Borlin was a revolutionary dancer, determined to blend folk dance, modern movement and ballet. He was brought over by the wealthy Swedish art collector, Rolf de Mare (, who led the Ballet Suedois at this time and was Borlin’s lover.  I couldn’t resist giving de Mare a cameo appearance in The Joyce Girl, not only because he fascinated me but because he and Borlin were so openly and bravely homosexual.  I should point out, however, that they were no longer lovers at the time Lucia performs in the novel (a liberty I took to squeeze de Mare into my narrative!). De Mare set up the world’s first dance museum in Paris, later transferring it to Stockholm where it still exists (

After giving the Ballets Russes a real run for their money, the Ballets Suedois closed in 1925. Borlin (pictured below) was exhausted.  He’d danced in 900 performances and choreographed all 23 of the ballets put on by the Ballets Suedois – something that drove him to drugs and alcohol. He began teaching (Lucia was one of his pupils) and gave the odd dance recital. In 1930, he went to New York and opened a dance school but died of a heart attack soon after at the tragically early age of 37.

Monsieur Borlin

Lucia also took dancing lessons from both the brother and sister of Isadora Duncan (Raymond and Elisabeth), at this time.  But when she switched to classical ballet, she began lessons with the celebrated Lubov Egorova, who taught many of the Ballets Russes dancers. Madame Egorova (who also appears in Zelda Fitzgerald’s Save Me the Waltz) taught Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, at about the same time.  There’s no account of Zelda and Lucia meeting (both were on the verge of their first ‘psychotic’ episodes at this time), but they both knew of each other and it seems likely they would have passed on the stairs, if nothing else. Including Zelda in The Joyce Girl was important to me because of the parallel trajectories of their careers and lives.

Lubov Egorova was the prima ballerina at the Russian Maryiinsky Ballet, until the Russian revolution broke out in 1917.  She married Prince Troubetsky before fleeing with him, penniless, to Paris, where she lived in poverty for the rest of her life.  She danced briefly with the Ballets Russes, but it was her ballet school that enabled her to keep a roof over her head. She opened her first school in 1920 and didn’t stop teaching until 1967.  Diaghilev sent his dancers to her, as did the Paris Opera.  She was renowned for knowing every role inside out and step-by-step. Her most famous studio was established in 1940 at the rue de la Rochefoucauld where she taught until she was 87.  You can watch her (aged 83) assisting Serge Lifar in a lesson at

Madame Egorova

Lucia’s final teacher was Margaret Morris, Scottish pioneer of the Margaret Morris Method (MMM).  Morris trained in ballet and acting as a child, but discarded ballet for the less formal movement pioneered by Isadora Duncan.  Like Lucia, Morris took dance lessons from Raymond Duncan. Convinced that movement had a role to play beyond entertainment, Morris set up a school in London followed by a school in Paris – where Lucia trained as an MMM teacher.  This was the tail-end of Lucia’s dancing career but the beginning of the MMM which went on to play a role in sport, schools and physiotherapy (Margaret Morris was one of the first women to train as a physiotherapist).  You can read my last post (May) to find out more about MMM or check out  Like Madame Egorova, Morris was a remarkable woman who danced until the end of a very long life. She’s eminently deserving of a biography … Any takers?

Margaret Morris


People often ask me how I discovered Lucia Joyce and what inspired me to write about her.  They’re good questions because, at the time, I was contemplating a career in flavoured vodka or a move into photography.  I was at art school one day a week studying photography and I’d planted 25 damson trees in order to make industrial quantities of damson vodka. I’d also invested heavily in a shipment of Italian glass bottles, ready to be filled with my exotically flavoured liqueurs.  And then I stumbled across Lucia….

It was 2012, a mere four weeks after the copyright on Joyce’s works had expired. Mary and Bryan Talbot had just published a wonderful graphic novel called Dotter of her Father’s Eyes (Jonathan Cape) which wove together an account of the author’s youth with a short account of Lucia’s life.  It was the first graphic novel I’d ever read and I was immediately intrigued and profoundly moved by the story of Lucia.  I’d studied Joyce in my university days but never knew he had a daughter – particularly one with such a compelling story to tell.  But a graphic novel with two narratives is by its very nature constrained.  And I wanted to know more.  Much, much more. What really happened between Lucia and Samuel Beckett?  How did she feel when she danced?  What was it like to have an exiled, Irish alleged-pornographer as a father?  What was it like to have a so-called genius as a father but an ex-chambermaid as your mother?  How did it feel to have psychoanalysis with Carl Jung? But, most of all, I wanted to know why she was left to languish in an English mental asylum, miles from friends and family.  What had happened to cause Lucia to tumble from ’talented dancer’ to asylum inmate? What had happened to make her own mother abandon her?

With so many questions, I was relieved to discover that a biography of Lucia had been written almost a decade before, by an American Joyce scholar, Carol Loeb Schloss.  I was even more delighted when my copy arrived – a fat 600-page book with a 23-page bibliography.  Here, surely, I would find the answers to all my questions.

I got my first indication that the biography might not be quite what I was expecting in the introduction. “This was a story that was not supposed to be told,” states Schloss, before explaining how almost every one of Lucia’s letters (to her, from her, about her) had been lost or intentionally destroyed, along with poems and a novel she’d written.  Schloss’s Introduction makes riveting reading with its stories of mysteriously disappearing trunks of letters, censored material and family feuds.  Without the usual sources that biographers rely on, and faced with what can only be termed a ‘conspiracy of silence’, Schloss’s task was a tough one.  So perhaps it was no wonder that, in spite of reading Lucia’s biography twice (To Dance in the Wake, Bloomsbury), I still didn’t have the answers to my questions.

Of course, the other issue concerns the relationship of fact and fiction.  Can a biography comprised of facts (however accurate and extensive) ever provide the emotional truth of a person’s life?  Can it give you the emotional access to the past that a good novel can?  I began to realise that the excitement of 1920s Paris, and the tragedy of Lucia’s later life, might be best conveyed and understood as fiction.  I began to think that the only way to fathom what might have happened to Lucia was by imagining it.  Fortunately, scholars, eye witnesses and historians have written comprehensively on the subject of jazz-age Paris, Jung, Beckett, Calder and the Joyce family.  I had more than enough facts to justify most of my interpretation.  These facts provided the narrative skeleton on which I hung my fictional flesh.

As I researched, I became more and more incensed at the various attempts to silence Lucia’s voice – both in her lifetime and after her death.  Anger was the fuel that drove me to ditch that promising career in vodka and, instead, begin writing a fictional biography.  At the same time, I was suffering from routine insomnia.  I needed something silent and absorbing to occupy my sleepless nights. Reading and writing about Lucia and her life filled those liminal hours that I’d previously spent tossing and turning.  Travel to Trieste, Zurich and Paris ensued, along with copious reading. Within a year I had a first draft of my novel.  And the rest, as they say, is history…