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This Week’s Bit of String: Storytelling bribery

It was the last class of the day. My 13-year-old student was still wound up from lunchtime; someone had incurred his wrath and plotting vengeance was more interesting than a Science lesson.

He squirmed in his seat and flicked bits of paper at his classmates. ‘Miss,’ he said, ‘have you ever punched anyone?’

‘Yes I have, and if you sit quietly and do your work, I’ll tell you about it at the end of class.’

The school had tried to encourage him to settle. Special daily reports signed by each teacher at the end of lessons, plenty of threats and consequences… But I’d finally hit on something (no pun intended). He kept himself cool for the rest of the session, and then I told him and his pals about how I got offended at a birthday party when I was seven years old and punched a boy I’d been friends with for years in the stomach.

Old school.

As writers, we know about target audiences. Any other anecdote would not have pressured my student into compliance. We’re always checking and re-assessing which tale is best to submit to which publication; this takes up a great deal of our precious writing time.

We also need to consider a key demographic: ourselves. Which project will hold our own focus at this time so we can develop it? When so much is out of our control, and so little available to brighten our days or broaden our horizons, not every idea will work for us right now. More than ever, we’ve got to write what we like.

Revisiting

In Britain, since October we’ve had just 3 weeks that weren’t on lockdown and there’s still at least six weeks until we can venture outside the same routes we’ve been walking for ages now. It may not be coincidence, then, that I’ve only this week written my first complete story since last fall.

I’ve had perfectly decent ideas in my daily notebook scribbling, for bizarre, dark humorous stories and feminist stories and tragedies-in-flash. But I couldn’t stick with them—not yet. If I had a few minutes of quiet to work on, you know, non-office work, I’d find myself staring at the computer until I found an excuse to Google something before shuffling off to spoon peanut butter into my mouth. (It’s not just me, right?)

Our writing can welcome us home.

The ones I manage to finish have pieces of home in them. They have youthful confidence and lakes and mountains and music like Salt-n-Pepa or Alanis Morissette played on old, fourth-hand car stereos with the windows down while driving several exits up Interstate 89 to get a root beer float.

These are the things I want, and probably need, to write about right now. There’s heartache and conflict but humour and resilience too—warmth. I’m not strong enough to dissect British daily life or examine the class structure or plunge deep into grief. It’s important that we do those things when we can, but if, like me, you’re just not up for creating such pieces right now, you can help amplify those who are: this upcoming volume of stories from the Lesbian Immigrant Support Group, for example, or Nikesh Shukla’s latest book Brown Baby.

The Places You’ll Go

There’s lots we can still do in our pages. If you’re struggling to get some work done, see if you can write something that feels less like work. Here are some suggestions:

Recreate a favourite setting: Since I can’t get back to New England, that’s become my favourite place to write about. I’m enjoying reading and daydreaming about other destinations (currently one of Peter Carey’s novels about Australia in the early 1900s), but for my writing to flow easily, I need deep familiarity, as with the place where I grew up.

Time travel: Every era has its challenges, but in recent decades at least, they weren’t the ones we have now. Set your characters at a stage in life when they might enjoy things more freely. I’ve been writing about teens who are alienated yet spunky, or about parents with mischievous kids to enliven the pages.

Or a drizzly New Hampshire Memorial Day parade.

Mingle with crowds: Let your characters do things we can’t. School dances, bowling alleys, mountain hikes. I find I’m not just counteracting my own losses and separations in my pages, I’m also imagining the things my son has missed out on, in his final year of school and first year of uni.

Do a remix: If you can’t summon your own ideas, twist a well-known story. You can go speculative on a historical event, or subvert a fairy tale. One of the stories I got published last year was this reversal of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” Following a pre-existing plot line from another angle helped me get the work done.

Use a natural progression: Seasons, holidays, milestones—these can help move your piece along. I started one story about growing up in the 80’s/ 90’s and wasn’t sure what would happen, until I used the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center as the turning point.

Give hugs: Create on the page the relationships we’re missing out on. This year I’ll have a story published in Retreat West’s anthology that I absolutely love. I wrote it last year, about two sisters. I haven’t seen my actual siblings in over 18 months.

Life’s not easy right now. We still want our writing to be great, and to get it out there, so we’ll make ourselves think of something original or follow a trend or submission theme. But you are allowed to write what you want. Write anything that keeps you wanting to write.

Literary Valentines

This Week’s Bit of String: Who wants to be Juliet?

Happy Valentine’s Day. It’s perhaps fitting to a holiday of Love that the patron saint’s origins aren’t definitively known apart from a martyred end of some sort. Who can really say where love comes from, and the most classic literary examples of romance often end tragically. (Insert special heart-shaped, chocolate-covered spoiler warning here.)

I’m sure there are a few lists out there of great romances. But most of us probably wouldn’t choose to live in previous eras, and so we wouldn’t prefer a romance from times when honouring and obeying were more important than striking out on adventures together and actually having some idea what your partner thinks about the world. Would any of us like to be in Juliet’s place? It’s hard to believe she and Romeo would have thrived together had they lived. Killing them off allowed the romance to linger, just as in Anna Karenina, if she had actually died in childbirth rather than surviving it, the great love affair would have outlived her.

Local window art for Valentine’s Day

To me, a good romance is one that I would actually be content to participate in. They’re not so common as you’d think. There must be some give-and-take to the relationship, a sort of useful friction which drives rather than divides. Definitely a mutual admiration. I wonder if we called romances “relationship stories,” would that lend them more credibility? We’re just learning about the varying dynamics, the infinite degrees of desirability. Here are the top ten literary relationships that I enjoyed reading about—with quotes, of course! You know I like quotes.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

This was probably the first book I read that provided an enticing insight into a relationship. I was 9 or 10 years old, and Alcott’s novel introduced the idea that deep friendship and shared passions aren’t necessarily sufficient grounds to accept a marriage proposal, but that waiting and maintaining independence don’t have to leave you lonely.

“’Ah! Thou gifest me such hope and courage, and I haf nothing to gif back but a full heart and these empty hands,’ cried the Professor, quite overcome.

“Jo never, never would learn to be proper, for when he said that as they stood upon the steps, she just put both hands into his, whispering tenderly, ‘Not empty now,’ and, stooping down, kissed her Friedrich under the umbrella.”

Possession by A. S. Byatt

A very literary romance, as two scholars fall in love while unearthing evidence of an unknown affair between two poets a century before. This examines whether, when love stifles independence, it might yet cause art to flourish. How much determination does passion leave us?

“And is love then more
Than the kick galvanic
Or the thundering roar
Of Ash volcanic
Belched from some crater
Of earth-fire within?
Are we automata
Or Angel-kin?”

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

A rare example of a strong female protagonist who while remaining true to herself, longs to find a loving partner. And our heroine finally does so, making the most of life with TeaCake and with her memories of him after the relationship’s devastating end.

“‘Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.’”

Maddaddam by Margaret Atwood

Atwood has a great ability to forensically dissect relationships, while not amputating any of the attraction. In this final book of the Oryx and Crake trilogy, two weary apocalypse survivors finally get together after years of waiting, and it’s simultaneously marvellous and familiar.

Coming home

“She’d longed for this, and denied it was possible. But now how easy it is, like coming home must have been once, for those who’d had homes. Walking through the doorway into the familiar, the place that knows you, opens to you, allows you in and tells you the stories you’ve needed to hear. Stories of the hands as well, and of the mouth… Yes. At last. It’s you.

Prayers for Rain by Dennis Lehane

I love Lehane’s dialogue. Banter crackling with warmth that sometimes crosses over to passion. This is why his detectives Kenzie and Gennaro are a big hit with me, and why their relationship is crave-worthy.

“Don’t look at me,” she said.
“Why not?”
“I’m telling you–” She lost the battle and closed her eyes as the smile broke across her cheeks.
Mine followed about a half second later.
“I don’t know why I’m smiling,” Angie said.
“Me, either.”
“Prick.”
“Bitch.”
She laughed and turned on her chair, drink in hand. “Miss me?”
Like you can’t imagine.
“Not a bit,” I said.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

This is quite a beautiful story that uses magic and fantasy to show love’s power, also addressing questions of destiny versus autonomy.

“As he kisses her, the bonfire glows brighter. The acrobats catch the light perfectly as they spin. The entire circus sparkles, dazzling every patron.”

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

I read this to research school shootings but it captivated me as a tragic love story, an elegy to a relationship as much as a confessional. Eva, the narrator, and her now absent husband Franklin loved each other so much, despite being quite opposite, and perhaps it made other relationships pale in comparison.

Affectionate chair, Cheltenham Street Art Festival, 2019

“After I’d survived so long on the scraps from my own emotional table, you spoiled me with a daily banquet of complicitous what-an-asshole looks at parties, surprise bouquets for no occasion, and fridge-magnet notes that always signed off, ‘XXXX, Franklin.’ You made me greedy. Like any addict worth his salt, I wanted more.”

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

This is an epic book about trying to create and express oneself during political struggles. It is not a romance. However, there’s a wonderful relationship between Wen the Dreamer, who woos the protagonist’s young widowed aunt Swirl through stories, leaving her a volume of adventure tales every few days. When she’s ready, they marry with this perfect storyteller’s vow:

“‘I promise you that for all our life together, I will seek worlds that we might never have encountered in our singularity and solitude.’”

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

I’m a huge fan of Waters. Her books are suspenseful with expertly-crafted twists, but they’re also deeply romantic, usually giving voice to relationships on the LGBTQIA spectrum. She has a knack for conveying the overpowering, multi-sensory nature of love.

“Frances took all this in, even while angled away from her, gazing at her—how, exactly? Perhaps with the pores of my skin, she thought.”

A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

The creator of Narnia published this journal of his widowhood under a different name, and it’s sad and lovely and relatable. In it there’s this line which I feel sums up the beating heart of any truly desirable romance:

“The thing I want is exactly the thing I can never get. The old life, the jokes, the drinks, the arguments, the lovemaking, the tiny, heartbreaking commonplace.”

I think the best thing we can do when creating relationships on paper is to use the tiny commonplace that Lewis refers to, the familiar details that symbolise a routine privileged by virtue of simply being shared. What do you think of these relationships? Do you have any recommendations?

Who to Listen To

This Week’s Bit of String: Lurking teens

There were five of them, maybe seven, secondary school kids in baggy tracksuits. They would slouch in the passageway under our apartment building even though none of them lived there, and they’d munch and smoke and look surly, occasionally erupting in shrieks or guffaws.

Everyone gave them a wide berth and I too felt nervous leading my son, then quite young, past them. Why though? Even if they muttered something about us, what difference did it make? They were just kids.

So one rainy day, I looked right at them and said, “Hiya. What’s going on?”

“Nothing much,” they mumbled, looking at the littered ground, shuffling their feet.

I’d shrugged and carried on, when their greasy-ponytailed leading lady, who’d already been expelled from the local comprehensive school, called after me, “But thanks for asking!”

There was a plaintive note in her voice—she wasn’t being sarcastic. They were an eyesore everyone wanted to ignore, so they moulded themselves to the expectation. I saw this play out again when I took a job at the secondary school. One of our boisterous Year 7 girls with learning and behavioural difficulties went round to a friend’s house. The next day she recounted to me, amazed and flattered, “When we got there after school, her mum asked us all about our day. Like she really wanted to know and everything! I never heard anything like it.”

Giving Voice

In our writing, we take it fairly seriously who we give a voice to. We actively seek ideas and perspectives, rather than just wait for them to come to us. In middle school, my brother and sister got trained up to be junior mediators. The programme’s slogan was: “When I listen, people talk.” At home they grumbled about that motto. It would make more sense the other way around, we were all in agreement. “When people talk, I listen.” Because otherwise, we thought as adolescents, you’d just be sitting around waiting and hoping someone starts to talk.

Welcome to the life of an adult creative… it’s also the life of a parent of teens. We have to meaningfully show we’re ready to listen if we expect either our writing to take shape, or our kids to be comfortable confiding in us. Sometimes, we just have to wait.

It’s tricky when offering ourselves up to different viewpoints these days, though. Everyone seems aggrieved, and some causes are clearly more just (and less violent or downright crazy) than others. The very figures who insist health care, voting, and living wages aren’t basic rights are the same people who howl and moan if they get a book contract or a lucrative college speaking tour cancelled for a racist tweet (or for supporting a deadly insurrection). Is being listened to a human right? Can empathy and a kind ear solve divisions that threaten a Civil War?

This word Peace formed by hundreds of toy soldiers at the Everything is Light exhibit in Stroud. Maybe anything is possible…

Not on a wide, national scale. Democrats in power now can’t just present obstreperous Republican senators with milk and cookies and ask how their day’s been. (I am picturing McConnell and Hawley and Greene in chavvy jogging bottoms, mumbling and dropping crumbs on the floor.) That’s because in order to work with people we need to not have our lives threatened by them, in the same way I had to talk myself out of fear before greeting the neighbourhood kids. The Republican party’s actions are increasingly reflecting their violent rhetoric, so there have to be major changes. But on a more immediate level, in our personal lives, perhaps we can reach out.

Understanding the Appeal

I get it, in a way, the whole QAnon, everyone’s-an-oppressive-threat thing. If a privileged person has used an incident to draw attention to themselves, they’ll have to find a bigger one next time. When the perils of migrant caravans didn’t materialise, a substantial percentage of the American population instead decided child-sacrificing pedophiles were running rampant, because of course everyone who disagreed with them must be in league with the man-goat.

I’m coming down from five years of worrying about Trump, his first campaign, and his administration. There are still many persecuted and neglected people and we have to make sure the new administration Does Something to help. But there’s some mental space free now, and it’s on me alone to use it, channel it into writing and into my family and my immediate community. There’s something almost facile about being caught up in national drama, having the excuse of a broader crisis to distract from the fraying mental health of my locked-down household, the novel ending that needs to be rewritten, and the distinct possibility that the shower and toilet are emptying below the floorboards.

Hence, I imagine, the appeal of QAnon and other Deep State conspiracy theories. You can shout about a crisis and be part of a super attentive group, but you don’t have to put effort into fixing your own life.

There, I’m beginning to form a bridge, by considering why some people might get absorbed, willingly, into this violent cult and admitting that we could have common flaws. I’m not labouring under the misapprehension that anyone from that side is going to cross that bridge and speak to me, but if they wanted to, I’d be ready to listen.

Good Morning, quarantined Dursley…

Last week at President Biden’s inauguration, poet Amanda Gorman won much attention with her poem “The Hill We Climb” and its exhortation to “be the light.” I remember another inauguration, when I’d just turned 12. Maya Angelou read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration. The last line of her poem stayed with me all this time, almost 30 years on: the hope that we can initiate change by fearlessly wishing each other Good Morning.

One of the things I’ve been telling myself in these recent times of floundering motivation, particularly as a writer, is that Small Steps Are Allowed. I don’t know how far I’m going to get when, but I’m going to do what little bits I can. Same with the world. I don’t know to reach the point where we can abide each other, but we can take this one small step recommended by Maya Angelou.

What if we just ask people around us, “What’s going on? How’s your day?” You never know, it could start a revolution.

Seven Wanders of 2020

Predictably, it was all British hikes last year. No European cities or the mountain lakes of home. Still, I’m lucky to live with countryside a mile away, to step out my door and choose a walking circuit of 3.5, 4.5, or 6 miles.

Weeks went by when we weren’t allowed even to drive a few minutes and explore Somewhere Else. Temporary easing of restrictions assigned extra value to sojourns that might otherwise not have been so memorable. And when we couldn’t travel, we could look to rainbows or holiday decorations. I think the people who put out massive displays of festive lights and inflatables by the third week of November, brightening the long nights, deserve to have a street named after them.

Dursley: Our Own Town

We’ve been familiar with the local hills for some time, but lockdown meant perusing churchyards, looking up name origins, finding the rare street less homogenous and more individualised than others.

Living in houses squished right up next to each other is hard. The constant reminders of other people practically on top of you, it’s exhausting. And when we fled for our daily walk, there were always a number of people doing the same. My son and I discovered more paths to the river (now more of a stream) and I may have gone mad without access to water in nature. Every day I incorporate the river in my walk, take my headphones off when I reach it, tell it hello, listen to its hurried reply, and imagine I could be on a riverbank anywhere in the world, letting it drown out the traffic and forgetting there are houses lined up on either bank.

Stroud Area: Selsley and Thrupp, A Few Miles Afield

My office is in Stroud so I used to go to this vegan hippie haven every day, walking the canal towpaths, listening to street musicians, frequenting little shops. For 3/4 of this year we could barely go at all. But our first journey out of town (by 7 or 8 miles) in the summer was to Selsley Common to see the dinosaurs, and my husband and I took a couple of canal walks later.

Woodchester: Local Lakes

Where I grew up every little rural town has its own lake plus various other ponds. That’s how you cool off in the summer. Over here, despite this Island being known for rainfall, there aren’t many accessible bodies of water. We had a couple of hikes (as did many others it would seem) at Woodchester, a National Trust estate with pretty combinations of wooded hills and manmade lakes, guarded by an unfinished gothic-style mansion which is pretty much the sort of place I intend to set my next novel.

Liverpool: Street Art and Maritime History

We managed to get a serious road trip in before this vibrant, friendly city was put into higher tier restrictions. With masks and constantly sanitised hands we explored museums to inspire whole fleets of stories: a branch of the Tate filled with modern art, the International Museum of Slavery, and the Maritime Museum. The grand if faded buildings still convey the city’s impressive history as emigration gateway and meeting place of cultures.

Charmouth, Seatown, and the Dorset Jurassic Coast

Plan E to celebrate my 40th in December was a cottage near the sea and fossil-hunting under the coastal cliffs. Plans A and B would have involved seeing my family in the US—I haven’t had a birthday with them since I turned 23. In the end, we were incredibly fortunate just to have this break 2 hours away, as it fell in the 3 weeks between Lockdown the Second and The Raising of the Tiers. And although the weather was generally poor, it left plenty of fossils to be found.

Combe Martin and North Devon’s Cliffs

As soon as the hospitality industry re-opened slightly in July, we went, for my first days off from work in months. Just to a cottage and lots of isolated hikes, mind you, no crowded beaches or anything like that. We love a bit of rock-scrambling and tide-pooling. The coastline in North Devon is pretty dramatic and made for good, even sunny, adventures.

Grasmere and Easedale Tarn: Proper Lakes

The main bit of our autumn road trip was spent a fair way North, in a Lake District shepherd’s hut with no electricity or running water. We hit Liverpool and the brief luxury of a half-empty hotel on our way back down. The Lake District is special for its own ancient landscape and language: fells and tarns and ghylls. Of course we hiked around Wast Water, England’s deepest lake at the foot of its sharpest peaks, and we visited lovely pubs and bakeries and came away with gingerbread and a glorious painting by Libby Edmondson. Our very favourite hike, though, was an unexpectedly bright afternoon walking along a beautiful purple-black river and ascending up to one of the glacial ponds, Easedale Tarn.

Did you get to do much exploring in 2020? If not, did you find anything special and new in your own local area?

2020 Reading Round-Up

I read thirty books this last year. You’d think, given lockdown and whatnot, that I’d have managed to read more than before, but I’m probably not alone in experiencing a continued dearth of leisure time. I suspect the hours previously spent commuting got absorbed by actually working more hours while at home, plus just, you know, trying to make life go on through the upheaval. Here are my very top ten out of a lot of good, transporting reads.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

In this partly historical, partly speculative story about pursuing freedom, Mr. Whitehead laid nearly all the eras of American racist atrocities out concurrently. It’s a rough look in the mirror but essential. He also tried to illuminate the inner life of a person born and raised in enslavement, and how it might limit one’s focus. I found the protagonist Cora compelling for her determination and understandable cynicism, and it was deeply irritating to see some Goodreads reviews complaining that she wasn’t sunny enough.

“A small freedom was the worst punishment of all, presenting the bounty of true freedom in painful relief.”

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

A fun and thrilling novel about exploring natural history in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and women’s roles in such discoveries. Set in an old mansion by often violent seas, it turns into a murder mystery with small-town treachery, solved by a really clever 14-year-old girl protagonist. This was my Christmas holiday feast following my own fossil-digging expedition the week before.

“It must be very relaxing being Mr. Jacklers, deaf to the crunch of other people’s feelings beneath his well-intentioned boots.”

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

I happened to be reading this one during World Book Day, which also happens to be St. David’s Day. Nothing like warm Welsh cakes and a great book!

I read the whole Neapolitan series at the start of this year, starting while we were actually in Sorrento, about an hour’s train ride south of Naples. They’re all intriguing, with intimate portrayals yet surprising turns. Elena’s educational journey, though, and the defiance of Lila’s first marriage including the perspective of her confused and brutal husband, made this possibly my favourite in the series.

“She deserved Nino, in other words, because she thought that to have him meant to try to have him, not to hope that he would want her.”

Smash All the Windows by Jane Davis

An award-winning, self-published novel about families coping with the aftermath of a disaster and the inquiry into its causes. Jane Davis created such beautifully nuanced characters in this, it’s hard to believe it was fiction, and I loved the added angle of using art to cope with grief. She also showed impeccable timing in revealing the different pieces and perspectives of the original event. You can read more about the writer’s process and her other (also acclaimed) work in this interview with author Sarah Tinsley.

“‘Artists have to make choices. We can make a small noise about a lot of things or a lot of noise about one thing.’”

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Another superbly crafted book with an enormous cast. It delved into so many different lives, spanning race and sexuality, making each person believable and sympathetic. I loved the ending, when every character was quite perfectly brought together. For me, the narrative style of line-by line rather than in standard paragraph form really worked, as if reading thought fragments, pulse by pulse. I found myself conducting my own observations in the same rhythm for a couple of weeks, it was so transfixing.

“the house breathes differently when Yazz isn’t there
waiting for her to return and create some more noise and chaos
she hopes she comes home after university
most of them do these days, don’t they?
they can’t afford otherwise
Yazz can stay forever
really”

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler

I hadn’t read any Anne Tyler yet, and I loved this first taste, the idea of the Homesick Restaurant, where diverse chefs cook a favourite home meal different each night, plus of course the distinct characterisations of the whole family in the story. It reminds me of John Irving’s work, which I usually love—but a little more concise and sort of snarky, too. I mean, check out this sample which says so much about the family:

“His mother told Jenny not to slouch, told Cody not to swear, asked Ezra why he wouldn’t stand up to the neighbourhood bully. ‘I’m trying to get through life as a liquid,’ Ezra had said, and Cody (trying to get through life as a rock) had laughed.”

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

A family story and a plague story, this was stunningly immersive. It spins the normal, patriarch-oriented history on its head by never referring to England’s most famous writer by name. He is merely The Tutor, or Agnes’s husband, or Susanna’s or Hamnet’s father. This twist comes off as perfectly natural amidst the insightful re-imaginings of Agnes Shakespeare (Anne Hathaway), and her three children. The smart, strong, grieving mother will stay in my thoughts at least as long as any of her husband’s characters.

A couple of these volumes were procured from Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, Bath

“Why would she ever want to behold anything else, when she could be taking in the sight of Susanna’s ears, like the pale folds of roses, the winglike sweep of her tiny eyebrows, the dark hair, which clings to her crown as if painted there by a brush? There is nothing more exquisite than her child.”

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

In a year with minimal travel, more than ever I love a book that can transport me. This one balances two storylines, doubling the mileage. There’s the story of 16-year-old Nao in Tokyo, her suicidal father, her Buddhist nun great-grandmother Old Jiko, and Jiko’s son who was killed fighting (or appearing to fight) in WWII. There’s also Ruth’s story, as she finds Nao’s diary washed up on a remote Canadian Pacific island. This was a great epic about life and death and purpose, while being warm and cheekily authentic.

“Does the half-life of information correlate with the decay of our attention? Is the Internet a kind of temporal gyre, sucking up stories, like geodrift, into its orbit?”

Circe by Madeline Miller

Having written my own book from the perspective of Eve, I was eager to read another female-perspective story about an oft-maligned mythological character. Circe the witch, as portrayed here, tells her story in a way I really connected to; she’s empathetic to all others and unassuming about her own power. I preferred hearing about her with the gods and heroes as mere cameos rather than reading their often similarly told stories, and I appreciated the world-building more from this less entitled narrator.

“The darkness around us shimmered with clouds of the Trygon’s gilded blood. Beneath my feet were the bones of a thousand years. I thought: I cannot bear this world a moment longer.
“‘Then, child, make another.’”

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Another epic—a bit more serious, a bit more dense, yet truly rewarding and beautiful. We have Marie in Vancouver, seeking her beloved sort-of-cousin Ai-Ming in China. Much of the book is recounting Ai-Ming’s stories about her grandmother, Big Mother Knife, in WWII China, then her father Sparrow adjusting to the fluctuating restrictions and demands of Communism, up to Ai-Ming’s own survival of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. We’re treated to examples of how love and creativity manifest themselves through oppression and separation. There’s so much in this book, maybe it best speaks for itself with this quote:

“‘Don’t ever try to be only a single thing, an unbroken human being. If so many people love you, can you honestly be just one thing?’”

Looking at this list, 9 of my top 10 reads last year were written by women. Not surprising as I only read 7 books by men in 2020. This wasn’t planned or anything, these were just the books I really wanted to read, and through a pandemic, and painful separations, they made me feel I was in the best possible hands.

What were your favourite reads in 2020? Did you have different or similar reactions to the books I’ve read? Do you think current events coloured your choices and your interpretations?

On Time

This Week’s Bit of String: Ancient cephalopods

Southern England’s Jurassic coastline is made up of cliffs where frequent landslides expose layers of rock and clay studded, sometimes littered, with fossils. One town, Lyme Regis, has 71 noted geological strata, each with its own species of ammonite fossil.

Ammonites are now extinct, but many shells remain, similar spiral shapes to nautilus shells, but ridged. You can find them among the stones and shells and smoothed glass fragments on the beaches of Dorset and East Devon, washed down from the cliffs by the tide, or find their curls poking from clay in the slipped feet of the imposing banks.

I’m quite fascinated by these and other fossils. Prying one out is like finding something from another world. The squid-like creature that lived in this shell might have swum past ichthyosaurs, might have dodged diving pterosaurs. Around 150 million years ago, this was a warm tropical sea near the equator, formed when Pangaea started to break up. The planetary spot they occupied, according to those who study continental shift, is now the location of North Africa. So the clay we slip over, scanning for more fossils, inched up here to make room for ancient Egypt and the skill and culture of the Moors.

We’re talking a very long expanse of time here, obviously. But I love to connect these dramatic pieces and to dwell in the realms of hitherto unimagined change.

Sunrise on the South coast

This past week I brought my little family, our bubble of three, to the Jurassic Coast and we stayed in a cottage to celebrate my 40th birthday there. I’d long intended to spend this milestone with my whole family in the USA, to party with them for the first time since I turned 23. But that, and Plans B, C, even D didn’t work out, for obvious reasons. Still: I partied, in my own way, by digging in slimy clay, hiking up cliffs in horizontal rain, drinking by the fire with the Lord of the Rings films on (extended versions of course), and sitting on the living room floor playing Monopoly while eating pizza as if at a childhood sleepover.

Sifting Through the Strata

Every life gathers its own layers, detritus packed into sediment, relics peeking from ooze washed down in a storm. When an event shakes us we might discover long-dead remains different in shape to the parts of us now evolved.

As I approached my twentieth birthday, the thought that I could live four times as long depressed me. I felt I’d done enough damage, would only end up dragging everyone down with me. That wasn’t quite the last time I felt that way, but it has been a while, layers of having a kid to adore and a marriage to make thrive and various jobs to pour my energies into and stories to create—these have buried earlier strata which might contain curled, spiny, hard-shelled relics of self-loathing.

One of my biggest finds, fossils upon fossils

You don’t go digging at the bases of the cliffs and you have to watch out for landslides. But if a fragment gets washed out, we might give it a little scrub and find that it has a certain intrigue or even beauty. Remembering what despair feels like is pretty useful for a writer.

This year the stories I’ve most loved writing, and reading when they’re done, are ones featuring children, their belief in magic juxtaposed with intolerance for untruth. I guess that’s what the pandemic and its many separations and fears have shaken loose from me.

I had one character, a teenage skeptic, reply when asked about her goals: “I’m going to refurbish an abandoned shed and call it Burnt Sienna. I’ll live there and do art with a puppy named Periwinkle and a pygmy goat named Ochre.” Sounds appealing, right?

Counting Every Moment

On Halloween, my husband and I watched the Netflix remake of Rebecca. He did a bit of research on the story’s author Daphne de Maurier and informed me Rebecca was her third novel, published while she was 30.

Impressive, we agreed. But then I thought, I’m turning 40 and I’ve written 3 novels. Those were written while working full-time and while being my family’s everything—no nannies or household staff or even local relations. That’s kind of impressive too, and helps me make peace with getting older.

I’ve now been alive for a longer period than the one which separated World War II from my birth. I’ve known my husband for just over half my life. Time is such a funny thing, the weight of it fluctuating vastly depending on what we’re measuring it against. It’s the same with accomplishments; they’ll look more satisfactory from different perspectives.

Not that we want to get too satisfied with ourselves. I was thinking as I pried at prehistoric remains with a stick of driftwood, my face wind-raw and hands clay-chapped, my shoes carrying an extra gallon of water from getting caught in 8-foot swells, “This isn’t meant to be easy, that’s the pride of it.” And even when I managed to free a fragment, when I rinsed it in the frothy waves and was thrilled by the sharp ridges and tight coils revealed, I still didn’t want to stop. It’s like when you write a good story, you still want to dig up a new one and see if it might be even better.

Maybe the best we can wish for, as time passes, is to maintain a desire for more of it. I hope that whatever this year has shaken from the cliffs around you proves useful in your writing, and that you’ve got the strength to keep seeking new challenges.

In the End

This Week’s Bit of String: An abandoned bread roll

There’s a five-storey office building separated from a Cotswold canal by a busy roundabout. It used to be a prominent building society office, and before that was the site of a massive brewery. Now it belongs to the company I work for.

In a bottom drawer of a black file cabinet on the ground floor you will find, as far as I know, a bread roll. It was purchased from a local bakery on the 17th of March. It is probably rigid now. If you pick it up it may crumble completely.

This year has reminded us you never know the last time you’ll see someone or someplace.

The cabinet was mine, of course, and I intended to eat the roll on Friday March 20th, but I got coronavirus so had to isolate, and during that time national restrictions began. I’ve worked from home since. My desk might be used by someone else, a new employee I’ve never met, who perhaps has opened my bottom drawer, thrown out the roll, and shifted my cheesy worksheets from mandated meetings (What Colour is Your Personality?), my Christmas decorations and fruit tea. If our roles were reversed, I’d feel like an archeologist sifting through artefacts left by a disaster and mass exodus. Scratching the surface.

The last line of a book is the final clue to uncovering its secrets, to the lives of its characters. We know nothing really ends—next year I might have to resume the long commuting days, might throw out that roll myself. In decades my office building might be something different again. For our purposes though, we have to conclude the plot. We get to decide where to end the stories we write. How do we do this well?

The Grand Finale

As writers we hear a lot about how to start a piece. We peruse lists of classic book openers, and edit our first pages no fewer than 300 times. Endings don’t get the same sort of attention though. There’s a consensus regarding short story anthologies, I’m told, that the strongest pieces need to go at the beginning and you just tack the weaker ones at the end.

Which end of this chambered nautilus is the finish?

I was surprised to find this out, because surely leaving a good final impression is nearly as essential as hooking readers in? I understand it’s more intellectually stimulating to leave endings a bit vague and open. However, I like some evidence toward a resolution, and I particularly enjoy works that ensure the relevant characters get cameos, however enigmatic, in the last bit (ahem, Anna Karenina).

In other words, to put this into a 90s classic as I am wont to do (usually in secret, but I’m feeling generous today), “What about your ends? Will they stand their ground, will they let you down aga-ain?” (Thanks, TLC.)

There are a few top closing line lists compiled on the Web, and I agree with them more or less. I don’t necessarily agree with Penguin Books that all last lines should “compel you to wonder what’s next.” If every book ended ambiguously, I’d find that tiresome. An ending that is definitively sad or happy can be memorable too.

Personal Favourites, aka Here Be Spoilers

That said, one of my very favourite final lines is from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” There’s a gentle finality to it; a kind, if tongue-in-cheek, release for a doomed relationship.

It also gives us permission to daydream while accepting what the reality is, and in fact a lot of endings fall into that category. In Atonement, Ian McEwan pulls a last minute swap on the reader, telling us: “You know that prettier alternative we were telling you about? Never happened.” Home Fires by Kamila Shamsie blazingly illuminates a tragedy but in her last line gives us one searing instant to imagine something happier. Jonathan Safran Foer in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close closes with a rewind, permitting us to linger on what’s been lost.

Many books end with the possibility of a new beginning, not a guarantee but a foundation laid. We know the characters won’t have an easy go of it, but we’re given sufficient confidence in them. I can generally count on Sarah Waters for this, as in The Paying Guests and Fingersmith, and Michael Chabon too. Madeleine Miller’s Circe and George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo are other examples of endings that tease great things to come.

When Will You Make an End?

I’m not always good at endings. The first story I ever wrote went unfinished, because at the age of 4 I couldn’t resolve the little girl’s predicament of being chased by a wolf. I still wouldn’t know how to sort that one out.

Letting the sun go down on some promising growth

With short stories, I tend to conclude them at the point where I don’t want to know what happens next. Those characters are for that moment only. With novels, I’ll revisit the people in my head, imagining reunions and revelations that weren’t necessary to the plot but are fun to think of nonetheless. It can help to come back to an image, a detail, in the final sentence or paragraph, something meaningful but light. Lipstick, or crayons, or maybe a bread roll.

At the moment I’m rewriting the ending of my novel The Gospel of Eve. I’m happy with a lot of the tying up I did, however loose some of it is (we have to keep with the trends and leave enough left unsaid), but the mood needs a little lift—tough job when it ends foreshadowing a world-destroying flood. But there are ways, as Hemingway indicated, to pretty things up a little.

After all, some of our key aims as writers are to portray harsh truths, to know how to speak beautifully of them, and to know when not to try dressing them up.

What are some of your favourite endings and last lines?

Keeping Warm

This Week’s Bit of String: Fruit cocktail upstairs

When I was growing up my family rented part of a large, New England lakeside farmhouse. It wasn’t the most meticulously renovated building, and sometimes the winter stole in, down the stone chimney (which bats were also known to use as a passage) and between the log walls. Some mornings were so cold my mother wouldn’t let us come downstairs.

Instead, she’d carry up a little wooden table with peeling paint, and our metal-mesh chairs, and some bowls of tinned fruit or yoghurt. We’d have breakfast like a doll’s tea party in the bedroom, clustered round the small table. We loved it.

Old England snow doesn’t compare to the New England stuff, but it still feels a bit exciting.

For our mom, it was probably stressful, worrying about our health and having to rearrange things when she had 3 preschool kids with another on the way. But we just enjoyed the thrill of it, while she took care of everything.

Some of my favourite childhood memories involved keeping warm. Car rides wrapped in afghans crocheted by great grandmothers and aunts; coming in from snowball fights to find Dad making pizza with his records blaring. To appreciate these, we had to be cold first. But warming up after is well worth it.

Warm-Up Writing

Warmth is the quality I most cherish in a book, film, or TV series. Some people might say chemistry but that’s a little volatile, and can be cold, manufactured. I’m not just referring to cosiness and security either. I like a crackle beneath the surface. Maybe it’s just a few embers which a piece occasionally circles back to, or steady driving heat.

A warm story doesn’t require the complete absence of cold. Far from it—without hostility or loneliness, how would we appreciate the pockets of warmth?

Let it blaze

The heat source is usually a relationship, though not always a romantic or conventional one. It might be acceptance of a friend’s or sibling’s quirks, or devotion to a particular place (love of home is still a form of relationship), or a driving faith in an idea, even if misguided.

Often, we get a combination of these. Of Mice and Men, for example, is about friendship, tolerance for disability and racial differences, and also the unabashed pursuit of pet rabbits. My favourite writers: Dickens, Chabon, Atkinson, AM Homes, John Irving—I love them for the vast, diverse casts of characters they use but it’s not as if they’re just ticking identity boxes. They’re portraying authentic idiosyncrasies, and other people’s attractions to them. Same with TV shows, I love the recent shift toward ensemble casts, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Brooklyn 99, because it feels appreciative and supportive.

Turning Up the Heat

I’m not reputed for the cheeriest of writings. My two most successful short stories are about a brutal invasion, and a grieving mum. But I think part of what commended those stories to judges and readers was maintaining a dash of warmth. How can we make sure it’s included?

Including all reality: Even during the most terrible events, small good things will still happen. Sunrises, embraces, a cup of tea. It’s not necessary to only show the bad.

Detail work: Quick lines about a character’s manner or appearance can endear them to us. Dickens and Disney understand this; giving even villains catchphrases or sidekicks. It makes us not hate to see them, and maybe even root for them.

Honesty: Fair presentation of our characters’ faults mean they can be more fully embraced, by other characters and by readers. Bonds that have been tested can come out stronger, so we needn’t gloss things over. My latest novel is about Eve, and while she and Adam had seen each other fail spectacularly, this made them rather appreciate each other’s support at new levels.

The beauty of frosted thorns

Relatability: If we recognise something in a story, even in the midst of unpleasantness, we warm to it. And as writers, adding familiarity makes us feel a situation more deeply, and that comes through. For example, in “The Apocalypse Alphabet,” along with the stress of rationing and an approaching invasion, I included images resonant from childhood and parenthood: a little boy with his nightshirt flapping around his knees, battling with wooden spoon weapons.

Imagination: While we like glimmers of familiarity in our reading, what really entices us is that those relatable details clue us in to something bigger. We want to feel part of a grander adventure, so there’s no need to hold back from introducing the weird or wild. Contrast is key. There’s a reason I remember the Upstairs Breakfasts rather than any other picnic at our little wooden table—they were unexpected, urgent, exciting.

Dialogue: Spoken exchanges are some of the clearest ways to communicate warmth, not just because someone’s saying something, but because someone’s listening as well. I miss overhearing dialogue, since my life is so home-based now. Even my walks have to come very early, before anyone is about. Last week I “treated myself” to a lunchtime walk and took my earbuds out while I strolled up the High Street. A scruffy bearded man in pyjama bottoms and worn red trainers boasted to a dog-walking lady with a More Beer hoodie about his wife’s special mince pies. A couple of men with foreign accents talked earnestly outside a closed-down pub about how much one man loved his van. “Dis car is my workhorse, you know?” Nothing intriguing or witty, but it warmed me to know that people are still interacting kindly with each other, right there on the street.

What are some of your favourite sources of warmth in the literary world?

In Pursuit

This Week’s Bit of String: Failed brakes

In the winter when my son was 14 months old, the brakes failed on our Ford and I did not have the funds to fix them. I was a single mum with work only as a substitute teacher. My baby’s childminder was up a steep hill in an area perhaps appropriately called Purmort, and the roads were often icy. He enjoyed the thrill ride, but the stress and terror of it nearly drove me to give up on life entirely.

It didn’t help that the childminder I’d used during the summer ended up stealing over $500 from me. I qualified for childcare assistance, but the state took a couple months with the paperwork and during that time, I paid the childminder in their stead. She took good care of my son and didn’t deserve to go so long unpaid. When the state reimbursed her for the full period, though, she never paid me back, and ghosted me after I changed jobs and providers.

I looked into support to get money. The town offered welfare grants, but a nice lady with 1980s hair and concerned eyes explained they were prohibited from contributing funds toward car repairs because public transport operated in our area. Even though said public transport only came twice a day and didn’t go within several miles of the new childminder’s hilltop house.

ANYTHING for this guy.

At the time all I could think about was getting enough money to keep my baby safe. I signed up for full state welfare, which meant I wasn’t allowed to indulge in the frivolity of completing a university degree, and that I essentially signed away my right to choose work. I would be required to spend a certain amount of time applying for jobs, and if I turned anything down because it didn’t seem the like the right fit, I’d be disqualified from assistance.

I got my brakes fixed though.

Guiding Principles

America’s Declaration of Independence lists our unalienable rights as: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Thomas Jefferson was a privileged slave owner but he knew enough to write them in that order. If your life isn’t secure, you’re not likely to worry as much about the other two. We give up freedoms of privacy in order to be safe: at airports, for example.

Many people voted on Tuesday to protect the first two types of rights. Others voted being told—and eagerly believing—they also needed protection. People who think masks are prisons, guns are oxygen, and anyone who looks different is a criminal.

Boston, Revolutionary hotbed

When considering the shocking if tiny rise in Trump votes among white women, I can’t believe all these people were deceived by far right fear-mongering. Some of it must be about pursuing happiness, about whimpering, “But my taxes though,” and scurrying to the ballot box ignoring flagrant racism, corruption, misogyny, negligence, and atrocities.

The genesis of the nation began, after all, with objections over taxes. In America, property is sacrosanct, and has been since Revolutionary days, when American heroes Washington and Franklin objected to the Boston Tea Party due to the material damage. Now, it is quite acceptable to half the nation that a person armed with a semi-automatic rifle can go to another state and shoot Black Lives Matter protesters dead, all because a Target might get graffitied. Many of us, and very probably the Founding Fathers themselves, equated pursuit of happiness with pursuit of property or material goods (including, originally, actual human beings).

I wonder what we’d be like as a nation if we weren’t trained to pursue personal gain. What if Jefferson had written, “the pursuit of justice,” or “the appreciation of prosperity?”

Don’t Tread on Me

I live in the UK now. Government-issued allowances enable, in many cases, only one parent to work full-time so that childminders often aren’t needed. Then there is free half-time preschool, and university costs are capped. Medical care is free. Naturally, the nationalised systems could do with better funding. But any medical concern isn’t pursued my economic ruin.

My taxes though? They’re not low. Nevertheless we have a high standard of living. If there’s a book I want (and have time for), I can buy it, supporting local businesses instead of crawling to Amazon’s cut prices. We have funds to travel and eat out occasionally. And if there’s a car problem or anything like that, we get it fixed without too much angst. I won’t forget what absolute luxuries these are. If our taxes went up to fix the NHS, especially in pandemic times, I know that would be fine.

From a John Furnival piece. The statue’s form is made with Wall Street headlines, but the flame is Emma Lazarus’s poem inviting immigrants, reminding us what truly makes our nation shine

Looking with dismay on my divided home nation, I’m aware that as humans we make all sorts of justifications to ourselves. Would I be swayed, under some circumstance, to swallow lies and endorse cruelty? Could I, this time around, have done more to convince fellow Americans not to do that?

We all need to reflect. Many people are in even more dire straits than I was once. Hundreds of thousands sick, in debt, or dead from a disease ignored and even belittled by the political party in power. People afraid their marriages will be taken from them, people standing up against police brutality. Families simply pursuing life and liberty, torn from each other at America’s border. I didn’t think I needed to point this out: your personal issues or beliefs aren’t more important than those terrible predicaments.

Researching this post, I noticed the oft-overlooked third paragraph of the Declaration of Independence: “…all experience has shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” Jefferson probably had no idea how true that would one day be of his own new nation. With Biden about to take the presidency, I just hope he and Kamala Harris can put the brakes on our headlong pursuit of whatever we think, often falsely, benefits ourselves.

Sufficing

This Week’s Bit of String: A sleepy question

Going to bed the other night, my husband asked, “If something will suffice, is it ever actually sufficient?” An interesting comment on the terms’ connotations, since saying something will suffice implies it is merely tolerable, while pronouncing it sufficient elevates it to the region of satisfactory.

He posed the question at the end of another evening when I retreated to my office corner to work overtime as soon as I finished washing the dinner dishes, so I sensed a sharper meaning. I was getting through the basics and little else.

In times like these, sufficing is lucky. I have a job to do overtime in, and can do so from the safety of my home. We have food so I can take a break from my desk to cook, and clean up after. Watching the pandemic claim lives and livelihoods while political unrest threatens my native country and nibbles the edges of this one, it’s easy to settle for what simply suffices.

These days are all about going a little easy on ourselves, being grateful for the tiniest stabilities. I think I’ve reached the point where I should strive for more, though. Anyone else?

Building on the Foundations

Unsurprisingly, both suffice and sufficient share the same root, even if in modern conversation they’re interpreted slightly differently. The Latin sufficere means not only to supply a substitute, to be adequate, but also to put under, to lay a foundation for, which implies it’s not meant to be the ultimate goal.

Thankfully, local artists are still bringing it: Rainbows up all over town made from photos sent in by the community

Since we had COVID in March, I get really winded climbing hills. I wonder, am I actually physically weaker, or did I feel weak a few months ago and now I expect to struggle and the dread takes my breath away? But I hike anyway, every day, and I just need to apply that to other areas of my life. To claw back time so I can go further without necessarily going faster.

I’ve written before about using art to push back against daily tedium. Why do we relapse and find ourselves not doing something so good for us? Without time to read, to explore, to learn, I feel as if I’m not even human.

This year, as things get hectic, I have managed to keep scribbling a few daily observations and ideas, so I’ve not completely silenced my writer-self. Despite getting a couple of stories published just a few weeks ago, though, I’m scared of trying to build a coherent story again, or even editing an old one. What if the latest bout of stress and the weird displacement, sometimes frantic, sometimes numb, of having my son away at university have finally snapped my brain? What if, given a bit of time, I just get lazy and choose to waste it?

I’m probably not the only one facing these doubts, so we might as well help push each other through.

Asking the Questions

Sometimes to do more, we have to ask for more. Yesterday I took a proper long hike after work, while my husband finished the hoovering for me. It felt weird because usually his day ends after the office and I do all the chores, plus working extra hours. I even shed a couple of guilty tears as I tromped along.

A Lake District climb I managed (just a bit more slowly) during a break a little while ago.

When I left him he was happy helping out. But sometimes we cling to a delusion of being The Only One to get certain things done, in our families and in our work. Telling ourselves how needed we are becomes simpler than asking what we really need—or don’t—in our lives. Feeling the late afternoon sun and smelling the autumn leaves, I wondered why I didn’t put Get Some Fresh Air During Daylight on my to-do list for the day. It was terribly important.

One area I’ve probably been insufficient in is my social life. As an immigrant, who became a parent at age 20 and has almost always had to work full-time while also attempting to forge a writing career, you’ve got to cut me some slack. Still, in over 7 months I’ve spent time with people outside my household only 7 times. That includes co-workers, and it includes family members apart from the 2 (now just 1) I live with. Bit shoddy, I admit.

I tell myself I have to devote free time to supporting my family and trying to write. Maybe I’ve reduced my life to a series of mercenary calculations on what will benefit me. My figures might be incorrect.

And this is where we do need to be flexible with ourselves. With life in chaos, we must allow adjustments. There’s no point wondering why the structures we once set up aren’t working; we have to re-balance. Ask ourselves honestly what needs to go so the true essentials can take precedence, because if we want to do better at one thing, we might need to let another lag. We deserve a chance to try, but thankfully we’re probably not so important that the world will end if we reprioritise. By letting someone help us out now and then, we might be helping them feel more sufficient, too.

Friendly Reminder.