Kindling Magic

This Week’s Bit of String: Phoenixes and falcons

Last weekend we took my son and his girlfriend, wearing Hogwarts t-shirts, on the Harry Potter tour at Warner Bros’ Leavesden studio. Several younger kids in the queue sported head-to-toe Gryffindor robes, one boy of maybe seven years old wearing Harry-style glasses as well, and humming John Williams’ Hedwig’s Theme on repeat.

Among fans, then. I was tickled too by a couple in their fifties, scampering around the outdoor sets and giggling while they waited their turn for photo ops. ‘Look at that,’ marvelled the man, peering through the back door of the Knight Bus. ‘You can see the beds, and all!’

Inside the creature workshop, the woman squealed and pointed at the display case where Fawkes stands regally. ‘It’s that falcon! From the headteacher’s office.’Fawkes the phoenix in his display case

So I got the impression these two fans hadn’t read the books. But they were no less enchanted by the story, perhaps enticed by the added celebrity sparkle of the film studio.

What’s the precise magic of a franchise that enlivens so many people, whether encountered on page, on screen, or in a bright-plumed animatronic bird? Different factors might appeal more to one fan than the next, but I believe even we non-fantasy writers can replicate some of this alchemy.

Harry Potter and the Approval of Twitter

I checked in with Twitter about the boy wizard’s appeal. Susan Macdonald cites the series’ ‘good characters.’ Definitely; they’re vivid, varied, and complete with fully-drawn, engaging background.

I posed with the trolley going through the wall at Platform 9 and 3/4.
‘Best take it at a bit of a run if you’re nervous.’

Lia, who tweets as @LiaTheBookBat, loves the parallel universe JK Rowling illustrates, and the possibility of ‘impossible things fuelled by magic.’ I agree the juxtaposition is intriguing: relatable characters and specific, just slightly altered details make the wizarding world seem ever so close.

Thriller writer LV Matthews (@LV_Matthews) notes that the ‘good overcoming evil story’ is especially relevant ‘in this crazy world.’ Certainly, Rowling pulls off this epic theme very well, examining different reasons people are attracted to good or evil, confronting friction between different members of the ‘good’ side, and even forcing the protagonist to question whether he himself might have evil tendencies.

Harry Potter and the Recipe for Enchantment

Personally, I was struck by how walking around the full model of Hogwarts felt like coming home. The first view of those turrets and spires, and I might have been Harry or Hagrid or even Tom Riddle, recognising a beloved place.

Hogwarts model
My son reckons this model is about 1/8 the size of the ‘real’ Hogwarts. It was truly stunning.

Strong emotion passed on from characters to readers: that’s the real magic here. Such deep empathy, whether for fictional or nonfictional people—that’s magic, and a mighty, unifying force.

Anyone following this blog since its launch in the wake of the USA’s 2016 presidential election will know creating that kind of magic is my favourite part of writing and reading. But there’s a lot involved in achieving this. All the factors above were instrumental in JK Rowling’s success with it, plus one more overarching element.

Even more than Hogwarts, the part of the tour that moved me most was Platform 9 and 3/4. Toward the back of the train, a car was open to show two different scenes. One end depicted Harry’s first ride on the Hogwarts Express, while the other showed the series’ final scene, ‘Nineteen Years Later.’

At its roots the Harry Potter series is a Cinderella story, Hagrid showing up on Harry’s eleventh birthday like a Hairy Godmother. (Or something.) Watching Harry’s journey, painful though it is at times, gives us hope, as referenced by my Twitter acquaintances.Dummies of Harry and Ron in the Hogwarts Express with various goodies from the trolley.Dummies of Ginny, Harry, Hermione, and Ron, 19 years later.His story lets us believe that however ordinary-looking, however put down we may be even by the very people meant to care for us, it’s not out of the question that in some alternate realm we are renowned, and we may prove ourselves worthy. Hope liberates our empathy—right or wrong, it’s easier to feel for someone who has an inkling of a chance.

(Side note: JK Rowling didn’t achieve the same heights with The Casual Vacancy, maybe because this essential ingredient was omitted. The characters were wide-ranging and believably flawed, but offered very little hope.)

So we are drawn in, enticed by clever touches like owls and wands, encouraged by The Boy Who Lived until we’ve fallen as hard as if we’ve eaten a box of Romilda Vane’s chocolates. In our own writing, it’s worth remembering the mixture of minor detail, promise of redemption, and characters that inspire deep, true feeling. What would you add to the potion?Quote from the Marauders Map on the walls of the studio entryway.

 

Believing What We Read

This Week’s Bit of String: Dinner with the minister

Quite a few years ago we had dinner at a Southern Baptist pastor’s house. I’d met his family at a New England playground when our son was little, and as they’d recently arrived from South Carolina attempting to reform us heathen Yankees, they were very friendly and keen to get our kids together.

‘He’s a pastor,’ I informed my British husband before introducing him. ‘Just bear that in mind.’

During the meal, the two men chatted merrily. The minister asked my husband about his physics studies, and eventually followed up with, ‘So do you believe in evolution?’

My husband laughed, leaning back in his chair. ‘Well, I don’t know anyone who believes in creation!’

‘Ah do,’ drawled the pastor calmly.

‘Do you?’ my husband asked me, visibly shaken to his core.

I shrugged. I was raised to, certainly, but in the midst of all the other issues and debates raging through life, I’d never found that one to be a battle worth fighting.

Old Premise, New Ideas

Is it so very important where we come from? I mean, to an extent it is. There’s a lot to learn about more recent history (post-Big Bang or Creation or what have you) that better informs our view of the world and of humanity. But I bumble along in my explorations happily resigned to uncertainty regarding the world’s origin story.

On a mental level, I see the logic of the Big Bang Theory. But the creation story still fascinates me.

Sculpture of a woman embracing a globe
Mother of all…

I’m working on a new novel, starring and told by Eve—‘mother of all the living.’ What would it be like, acting as the prototype for 50% of an entire species? How would she learn to be a woman when no other women were around (and not many men either)?

I’m scribbling the early chapters, as well as researching at the moment. I haven’t read a lot around this issue. I’m planning to read Paradise Lost, and look at the Apocrypha as well. So far, I just keep reading the first chapters of Genesis. And honestly, it’s intriguing.

I’m sure to many, the Biblical idea of Intelligent Design sounds overbearing and rigid. But each verse poses huge questions and leaves much to the imagination.

For example, after Eve and Adam took the forbidden fruit, God clothed them in animal skins. How? Was this the first animal slaughter? Could it, further, have been an animal they’d loved in that place of peace?

Eve is never named in that account until after being cursed by God and exiled from Eden. She’s called ‘the woman,’ or ‘Adam’s wife’ up till then. That’s cold. Why?

Then again, considering Adam’s name simply means man, and according to the story there were no other men or women around, I guess they wouldn’t have needed to call each other anything else.

Factual Truth Versus Character Truth

So I’m researching, and questioning, and daydreaming. Not because I intend to find out exactly what happened in the first days of earth, but because it’s fun to imagine.

Isn’t it, in a way, more exciting not to know or worry about whether a book’s premise is true? Hogwarts probably doesn’t exist, and when you think about it, a ring holding dominion over all Middle Earth is somewhat bizarre. But we love finding out how characters—people rather like us—might react in such inventive scenarios.

Bristol Cathedral interior
And we can marvel at the beauty of something without sharing in the faith it represents.

It’s not exactly difficult to imagine a woman breaking a rule—she’s sure she’s only bending it a little—in order to gain some equal footing. So what if it takes place in a garden paradise that’s just appeared out of nowhere, with angels strolling and demons lurking? I feel I can still inject plausibility into her plight.

I think there’s a vital difference between believing a book and believing in a book. It’s the difference between veracity and value; the hierarchical inferiority of situation to character. Aren’t we capable of savouring a protagonist’s authenticity without completely swallowing their circumstances?

I keep going back to this quote from Yann Martel’s eponymous character in Life of Pi: ‘If you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for? Isn’t love hard to believe?’

I’m not putting my trust in the words of Genesis. But it draws me in and I accept its story, the same way I accept a John Irving story or a Joanne Harris one. Fiction writers tell the truth of their characters, and I’m prepared to believe them. Tell me a character, Biblical or otherwise, did such-and-such: fine, I’ll play along. I’ll ponder why, and to what effect.

Do you find it necessary to establish the complete veracity of a book in order to get involved? What makes a story more or less believable—how happy are you to fill in the gaps?

2017 Reading Round-Up

I read fifty books this year. I had to, because it was the target I set on Goodreads, and we mustn’t fail targets. I’m setting a lower target for next year, though, for reasons I shall elaborate on in a later post.

Among those fifty, there were quite a few to which I awarded five stars. More than ten, certainly. So to distinguish between a great (5-star) book and one that’s nudged onto this list, I’ve used here the ones that absolutely thrilled me.

I don’t mean in terms of suspense (well, not just that). I mean the emotion and linguistic skill and plotting electrified me with every page. Read on, enjoy my very favourite quotes, and take note for future reading lists!

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood: Shiver-worthy dystopian read of my year

I chose the final book from the Oryx and Crake trilogy for its exploration of the storyteller’s role in a culture. Each sentence reveals volumes about Atwood’s imagined dystopia, a world controlled by corpocracies. For example, this was published in 2013 but references a border wall keeping refugees from climate-ravaged Texas out of the other states. Oh, the irony.

‘Is that what writing amounts to? The voice your ghost would have, if it had a voice?’

A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers: Wince-for-the-protagonist book of my year

Our hero, Alan flounders in his foreign setting, but he knows some good jokes, and loves his daughter so much, I rooted desperately for him. Presented in short, snappy segments, it’s almost as if the whole book is an attempted letter from Alan to his daughter, with bits of story interrupting. Perhaps that’s how Alan sees life, and it’s causing him to come undone.

‘It becomes a process of choosing the one or two people you try hardest not to disappoint. The person in my life I am determined not to disappoint is you.’

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson: Laugh-aloud book of my year

I first encountered Lawson’s fantastic sense of humour and (mis)adventure a few years ago through her blog post about the Bear’s Head. I especially admire her for the joy she derives from her quirky family, talking dead squirrels and all.

‘This must be what love is. When you want to make it less difficult for someone to murder you.’

A Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin: Edifying nonfiction read of my year

Riverbank by a waterfall
A new job in 2018 meant finding new places–and time slots–to read and write. My favourite, here, on the River Frome (also known as Stroudwater).

Goodwin’s research makes the already-known sad ending all the more poignant by including the grief of those closest to Lincoln (even the ones there reluctantly) and also by offering evidence that Reconstruction and civil rights issues could have been less painful under his continued guidance.

‘A government had better to go to the very extreme of toleration, than to do aught that could be construed into an interference with, or to jeopardise in any degree, the common rights of its citizens.’ —Abraham Lincoln, quoted in Goodwin’s book. (The founder of the Republican party, ladies and gentlemen.)

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: Most redemptive characters read this year

Some found this hard to finish because they found the characters unappealing. But they resonated with me because no matter what mad, reckless things they did, they were just seeking approval. The central family moves from feeling that obligation is a symptom of attachment, to understanding that freedom is a required preexisting condition for genuine love.

‘Compliments were like a beverage she was unconsciously smart enough to deny herself even one drop of, because her thirst for them was infinite.’

Human Acts by Han King: Shock and awe book of my year

Did you know there was a terrible massacre in the Gwangju Province of South Korea in 1980, perpetrated by the government? Neither did I, until I read this. A book so engrossing I didn’t want to put it down, so sad I had to pause my reading while on holiday, yet so haunting I couldn’t cheat on it with any other story.

‘Conscience, the most terrifying thing in the world…I remember feeling that it was all right to die; I felt the blood of one hundred thousand hearts surging together into one enormous artery, fresh and clean…I dared to feel a part of it.’

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters: Dread-the-ending book of my year

Reading this, I was almost physically sick with fear that things wouldn’t work out for Waters’ heroines falling in love with each other in the early ‘20s. But as with Fingersmith, she didn’t let me down. She recreates the ravages of a love affair as vividly as she does the tragedies and minutiae of history.

‘Would it be all right, wondered Frances, if they were to allow themselves to be happy? Wouldn’t it be a sort of insult to all those others who had been harmed? Or oughtn’t they to do all they could—didn’t they almost have a duty—to make one small brave thing happen at last?’

Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer: Sweeping epic read of my year

Epic? Should I really be comparing tales of a relatively privileged American family in NYC to something like Lord of the Rings? Well, I find the daily struggles for meaning and validation to be quite stirring, especially against an imagined (for how long?) backdrop of all-out war in Israel and the Middle East. Foer plays these parallels off each other expertly.

Mural of the countryside, inspired by Cider With Rosie
Mural in the Stroud Library in honour of local author Laurie Lee. Another recently discovered reading spot.

‘And the inexplicable, unreasonable, illogical emotions and behaviour of parents can be explained, by having had to believe for the better part of a year [leading up to the birth]. Parents don’t have the luxury of being reasonable, not any more than a religious person does. What can make religious people and parents so utterly insufferable is also what makes religion and parenthood so utterly beautiful: the all-or-nothing wager. The faith.’

The Help by Kathryn Stockett: Top inspirational read of my year

We all need the occasional reminder that courage and unity are powerful, that women from all skin colours and walks of life can initiate change when we come together, and that telling your story, or writing someone else’s down on their behalf if needed, can make a difference. This was a perfect reminder of that for my 2018.

‘And then she say it, just like I need her to. “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”’

The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving: Evangelistic read of my year

The one I HAVE to tell everyone about.
From the title of the first chapter (‘A Bear Called State o’ Maine’) I was hopelessly in love. Irving’s imagination is wild, shoving the quirkiest characters in the most unexpected directions. But somehow, it all comes together as every little detail, no matter how goofy it once seemed, becomes wholly relevant by the end.

‘”Being a star is easier,” Fanny would say. “You just be relaxed and hope that the you in you comes across.” For a writer, I guess, the you in you needs more nourishment to emerge.’

What were your favourite reads from the past year?

Picture Book Lessons

This Week’s Bit of String: The D-Word

Once upon a time, my brother and sisters and I loved visiting my grandparents in their house of forty years. The AM radio constantly played vintage hits, and yummy smells wafted from the kitchen. There was always a bowl of popcorn in the lounge, between two puffy armchairs, and there was an extra rocking chair, quite small, for us children to take turns in. And while we did, Grammy read to us.

Apparently November was Picture Book Month, which caused me to reflect on my personal favourite, a tiny paperback at Grammy’s called Noisy Nora (Scholastic Book Services edition, 1973). It’s written by Rosemary Wells, who also created Max and Ruby, later making a mint off them, I expect.

Noisy Nora featured cute pictures of an anthropomorphised mouse family, amongst whom Nora was the [seemingly] neglected middle child. The story unfolds in rhyme. Nora attempts to entertain herself while her parents are busy with her siblings, but everything she tries [perhaps intentionally] attracts this refrain of not-so-positive attention:

‘Quiet!’ said her father.
‘Hush!’ said her mum.
‘Nora,’ said her sister, ‘why are you so dumb?’

Now, at this last line, my grandmother would hesitate as if she didn’t want to say the word dumb. So I would shout it in a rare act of rebellion—back then dumb was like a swear to us.

Pages from Noisy Nora
The repeated rebukes of Noisy Nora

Looking back now, I’m sure Grammy didn’t really have a problem with that word.

Evidence A: She once marched off to find a dictionary and read the official definition of contraception when my youngest sister asked.

Evidence B: Grammy told me when I was sixteen and my father (the youngest of her six children) had lost his temper and made me cry, ‘You know, we made some mistakes as parents. He acts this way sometimes because we didn’t help him do what you’re doing now. So go on and let it out.’

I suspect she gave me the job of shouting, ‘DUMB!’ because she knew I needed to let that out. The same way she taught us to make faces and say, ‘Blech!’ when our mother had to give us Robitussin. I asked my mother, more recently, if that had bothered her.

‘Not at all,’ she said, ‘because it made taking medicine more fun for you. That’s why she did it.’

A spoonful of self-expression makes the medicine go down.

Another page from Noisy Nora, as she says: 'I'm Leaving! And I'm never coming back!'
The climactic moment when Nora will make them all sorry.

My Grammy had also been one of ten children herself, in a farming family that had to split up during the Depression to ensure everyone got fed. She loved her brothers and sisters dearly, but maybe she understood about sibling rivalry. I wish I knew whether she thought about her own childhood at all when reading Noisy Nora to me.

Noisy Nora showed me the powerful release just one word can bring. A little story, even populated by mice, could reflect my reality, and it didn’t need to have dragons or princes to be exciting and fun.

What other lessons have we learned from picture books that impact us as writers?

Building Imagination: The book that got me reading (because I was so desperate, at the age of 3, not to wait until someone was available to read it to me) was a picture book version of The Wizard of Oz. Books like that transport characters to extraordinary worlds—even though they’re perfectly ordinary kids. They step into wardrobes, or try playing a board game found in the park, and suddenly anything can happen. Stepping into these worlds is the exact reason we perfectly ordinary writers pick up a pencil and begin a story.

Provoking Sympathy: Picture books make obstacles look exciting, encouraging children to consider new situations they haven’t personally faced. For kids, it doesn’t matter whether a character is a princess or an orphan, black like the ukulele-wielding boy who takes down Abiyoyo or Chinese like the woman who pursues her dumpling into the underworld, an elephant like Babar or a mouse like Nora. They still care what happens, and as writers—and, well, as human beings—that’s nice to revisit.

Fostering Rebellion: Many popular children’s book characters get vindicated, no matter what mistakes they make. Max returns from Where The Wild Things Are to find his dinner ready for him, after all. Curious George and Amelia Bedelia always find ways to save the day after nearly ruining it. These teach us that it’s okay for characters to be flawed; they can still be heroes. I’m pretty sure a lot of us writers find those types of characters even more appealing now that we’re grown up.

The conclusion of Noisy Nora
Nora’s absence teaches her family a lesson, and she is welcomed heartily back from the wilds of the broom closet, despite her awful noise.

Recognising Patterns: Our very earliest picture books—Goodnight Moon, the work of Dr Seuss—introduce to us a sense of rhythm and rhyme, making reading beautiful and musical. Those are important qualities to maintain even when writing prose as an adult. Consider also series such as Madeline and Curious George, in which each book starts the same to reintroduce the protagonist: (‘Twelve little girls in two straight lines…’) These help us develop an understanding of backstory and appreciation for consistency.

Encouraging Expression: Books like Noisy Nora showed me it was okay to have occasional misgivings about sharing attention with my brother and sisters. I would never have used the word dumb at that age, but I could say it through a character. Perhaps that act of ventriloquism helped instigate my love of writing, but I suspect it sprung also from what sheer fun this and other picture books were, and are.

What were your favourite picture books? How do you think they influenced you later in life?

An Eventful Week

Bit of String: The Relevance of Little Earthquakes

As a late sixteenth birthday present, I took my son to Tori Amos’ concert in the Royal Albert Hall Wednesday night. He appeared to be the youngest in the huge audience, but he loves Tori’s music, often fully recreating it on the piano by ear, and he recognised every song she played by its opening chord, turning to me to whisper excitedly.

On our way to the concert, he said, ‘I don’t think I’ve asked you this before. I mean, I know you have her music and that’s how I got to know it, but is she one of your favourites, too?’

The answer, of course, is yes. I told him about the Columbia and BMG cassette tape deals of the mid-90s, how you could join their ‘clubs’ and get tapes at cut prices. I used these, as an adolescent, to buy all kinds of music to experiment with what I best related to. I bought Under the Pink as part of my explorations, with Little Earthquakes quick to follow.

She came out with lyrics we didn’t usually hear from singers. Before Alanis Morissette asked ‘Are you thinking of me when you fuck her?’ and Fiona Apple owned being a ‘Criminal’ and a ‘Sullen Girl,’ before Paula Cole got sarcastic about cowboys, there was Tori admitting she wanted to ‘smash the faces of those beautiful boys’ who took advantage of her as a child in ‘Precious Things.’ She reminded us, ‘You’re just an empty cage, Girl, if you kill the bird,’ and she knew we’d been ‘Silent All These Years.’ So I was thrilled to see her live, to enter the Royal Albert Hall, although it was an even bigger thrill to attend with my son and see his joy as he said, ‘I feel so light, I feel like I weigh nothing.’

The Royal Albert Hall stage set for Tori Amos.
The stage is set.

‘It’s the crowd’s reaction when she started playing “Silent All These Years,”’ he said as we wandered through London the next day, making a required stop at the American Embassy and then moving on to the sculpture exhibition in Regents Park and the London Zoo. ‘That’s what makes me so happy, that she’s still really relevant today, and she could see it for herself there.’

I’m intrigued that he takes that away from the event; as a musician he’s pondering relevance and as a teenager he’s already giving some consideration to generativity versus stagnation, Erikson’s late stage of psychological development.

But it also made me think about what makes music—or literature—relevant. In Tori’s case, I think there’s that revelatory quality, of communicating something true (at least for a lot of us) that hasn’t yet been voiced enough.

And as I’ve written before, it’s about creating beauty from pain.

Relevance at Cheltenham Literature Festival

Fast forward to Saturday. Cheltenham Literature Festival day! I love this festival, there’s so much on and the vibe is excellent. My husband came out for the evening with me and we saw comedian Robert Webb (of Mitchell and Webb, as in Sir Digby Chicken-Caesar) speak about his new book, How Not to Be a Boy. He spoke, wryly but warmly, about the difficulties of conforming to gender stereotypes.

Given that my son has such varied interests, you may see why the topic is relevant to me. Here, Mr. Webb has created a piece of work from his own sometimes painful childhood of feeling misfitted. He also put a particularly public voice to what may well be a private dilemma for a lot of people.

A Festival mural depicts travels against a backdrop of giant books.
Mural along one of the marquees at the Festival

Before that, I had been in the Sky Garden Tent with a few hundred others to see Sarah Waters receive the Times Award for Literary Excellence. Having read Fingersmith last year and considering it the most surprising twist I have ever read—and the most well-executed, she was the top of my must-see list for this year’s festival.

Sarah Waters managed to bring lesbian historical fiction into mainstream literature. I suspect that’s hugely relevant to a lot of people. For those of us not that way inclined, it’s still important to read that perspective. I also loved her answer when asked about planning one of her later novels. She said she’d just been through the hard break-up of a longterm relationship.

‘I thought, this has been really awful. So I might as well make some fucking money out of it!’

Fellow writers, I think we’ve all been there. Not making money out of it necessarily, but at least putting our tough times into artistic form, creating characters to carry those burdens for us.

Before the prize-giving, I’d watched a panel discussion on Being Other in Britain Today. Nikesh Shukla talked to June Sarpong and Reni Eddo-Lodge about their books. Check out Mr. Shukla’s campaign to start a quarterly journal of great writing from authors of colour, and the website for June Sarpong’s new book Diversify, which lists practical steps to tackle all our private prejudices.

It was a challenging decision which book to buy after this event. (I can’t buy every single one; I’d go broke.) I chose Ms. Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. It seemed the one I might need the most education on. When someone from another sphere of experience feels they’re not being heard, the logical step is undoubtedly for us to listen.

Ms. Eddo-Lodge’s book is based on a blog post she wrote a few years ago. She says she never imagined the piece would go viral; it was something she had to get out of her system. Once she had written her feelings of frustration at how her white friends seemed to ignore her concerns about race, she felt that was that, and didn’t assume dialogue would actually ensue.

Which goes to show, perhaps, that our writing can be relevant and impactful to us even when we don’t do it for a large audience. We can’t really predict how many others might need to read it, can we?

A New Literary Era

This Week’s Bit of String: ‘I think something might be happening…’

On a sunny New England morning, my mother drove me to my 39-week hospital visit. We were running late for the 9:00 appointment, because I’d been in labour for more than thirty hours, and that rather interfered with my sleep. So she dropped me off at the entrance and I ran (okay, stumbled) upstairs while she went to park.

The male gynaecologist smiled patiently but didn’t bother examining me, I guess because I wasn’t screaming in agony. I was in and out quite quickly, silently miserable despite my lack of screams.

As she accompanied me back to the car park under perfect blue skies, my mother said cautiously, ‘I think something might be happening.’

Damn straight, I thought. Surely my insides squeezing like a toothpaste tube every five to seven minutes for this long is producing some result.

But there was in fact something much bigger happening. As she came up to meet me, she passed workmen listening to the radio. At home we put the TV on instantly, and I watched Dan Rather’s shock as the World Trade Center started collapsing. I remember his words while I vainly attempted to smother the pain with heating pads: ‘May God have mercy on their souls.’

My son at the piano.
16 years old this week.

Exactly fourteen hours after the first plane hit the first Tower, my son was born. I didn’t know anyone who was killed that day. Although I lived in the same corner of the country, I’d barely visited New York City. But bringing a new life into the world that day, under my own very uncertain circumstances, threaded a deep connection within me to the events.

Just as motherhood changed how I write, the terrorist attacks changed how the country wrote. Have you noticed that?

Characteristics

Questioning became literature’s emergent theme, a certain shaken quality to the characters of post-9/11 stories. Main characters have power and talent, but there’s uncertainty that this will be enough, in a world where sunny mornings can end in flame and toxic smoke, where going to work at one of the world’s most famous addresses can result in death.

This prompts a re-exploration of life’s meaning, and an increased tendency for characters to admit their lack of fulfillment. Almost like a survivors’ guilt, not reconciling with victims of the attacks, but trying to reconcile with the circumstances outside our fortunate nation that were causes of, and exacerbated by, the tragedy.

Writers tend to be fairly liberal people, so many were aware of the situations further abroad that may have motivated young radicals to sign on to Al Qaeda’s cause. They would also have noticed the effects of our sometimes heavy-handed response. While this hasn’t resulted in many cases of outright literary rebuke, it often shows in the characters’ actions and thought processes.

And yet the storylines rarely take power from the powerful. Characters find ways to redeem themselves at least in their own eyes without sacrificing too much comfort. This is realistic, perhaps, but also revealing. How much do those of us who are somewhat privileged really want equality?

Examples

First, there are still books dealing with the immediate aftermath which I haven’t read. A fuller list of work dealing with the tragedy is here in The Guardian. My comments are inevitably coloured by other recent reads: Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, even Kathryn Spencer’s The Help. Things get shaken up, but the balance of power remains.

Also, spoilers.

One World Trade Center, the tallest building in the world.
Power still stands.

Jennifer Egan’s worthy Pulitzer winner A Visit from the Goon Squad deals with grown-ups, several of them rich music industry figures, growing up again and again. I read this after rereading The Great Gatsby, and was struck by the similar portrayal of roiling anxiety beneath decadence. The characters mention the skyline gap left by the Twin Towers, but principally I see this work as thematically relevant; the feeling the world is ending and maybe we deserve it, maybe we even want to see how it unfolds, but the ones at the top will find a way to survive.

Saturday by Ian McEwan is set across the Atlantic, in the other half of the ‘Special Relationship,’ amidst massive protests against the start of the Iraq War. Both the UK and the story’s protagonist, a well-off surgeon, are forced to question whether they are truly righteous. The main character’s careless traffic violation wreaks havoc in his life, but without major consequences that last beyond the single day in the book. He will be more careful in future, no doubt, and we are glad he’s all right, because he loves his family and tries to do good. But I wish there could have been a happy ending for the poor, chronically ill man he collided with, too.

In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid adds vital perspective by imagining the adventures of a Pakistani Muslim man in America during 9/11. The questioning and the power take on different angles here, because although the main character has talent and some privilege at least in his native country, the real power here is the US, and it seems to have sided against him. The nation may have suffered, but it’s not going to do it quietly. This man has been forced to question whether all he wanted—success in New York City—ever wanted him back.

Finally, of course I must mention Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. It links young Oskar’s grief after his father’s death in the World Trade Center to his grandparents’ continuing trauma after the fire-bombing of Dresden. Then it widens the net as Oskar searches New York City for answers, and meets all sorts of people who seem to be searching in their own way. I find this to be a gloriously human book, and as it’s set in the more immediate aftermath of the events, it’s more about survival and redemption than power.

What themes stand out to you post 9/11? What other books offer important perspectives on the event?

 

 

Stories Worth Translating

This Week’s Bit of String: Language barrier in a cafe

My favourite cafe gets crowded during lunch hour. I managed to grab one of the little tables upstairs, but diagonal to me a woman and her late-teen son and daughter sat on one end of a longer wooden table while an older couple sat with their little granddaughter on the other end.

The grandparents only spoke French. They were visiting their bilingual granddaughter. The woman opposite could speak very little but English.

This did not stop her talking to her unknown tablemates. First she noted that she and the elderly Frenchwoman had the same colour iPhone case. ‘Rose gold. Rosé?’ Ah, the transcendent powers of technology.

Table at window with street view of Stroud.
Occasionally treating myself to a lunch hour of writing and yumminess at Woodruffs Organic Cafe.

Then she did her best to tell the couple about the local village where she and her children lived. ‘It’s very old, very pretty—yes, jolie? It’s jolie, I think? And hills, lots of hills. Mond, montes? Hills?’

It occurred to her that if only her sister were around, the difficulty would be solved. ‘My sister—ma soeur—she speaks—how do you say speaks in French? How do you say fluently?’

And on like this for some time. She felt the need to convey to them, battering against the language barrier, that her mother had first become a grandmother at a younger age than the woman herself now was.

I started to wonder whether the woman was just desperate not to talk to her own children, who sat politely, murmuring hopeful foreign phrases to bolster her floundering. Why was it necessary to tell the French couple these things? Surely France has hilly villages. Surely it has young grandmothers. We already see it has rose gold iPhone cases.

Women in Translation

August is Women in Translation Month, raising awareness of women who write in other languages, and women who bridge the gap between us. Just this year I’ve read three books written and translated by women: Ludmila Ulitskaya’s The Big Green Tent (translated from the Russian by Polly Gannon), The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz (translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette), and Human Acts by Han King (translated from Korean by Deborah Smith).

All three of these books were excellent, telling memorable tales in haunting voices. The stories they told were distinctive to their countries. They were slices of history or current events. I felt better educated by each, and not a little fortunate to live in a nation with small problems in comparison.

In other words, I was reading about our differences. Some of the issues described in each book: relationships, job insecurity, health problems—are human problems we all deal with, but they were sharply twisted by the different type of political chaos in each case.

So I wondered, what about our similarities? Are those worth talking about sometimes?

Translation Pre-Requisites

Translated works are subject to the whims of the market, as much as other books are. Jade Boyd, who earned her Masters in translation at the University of Bristol, reminded me when I asked about the process that usually a book would first be successful in its native language before its publishers invest in translation.

This means that a translated book must first meet the standards all our books are (theoretically) held to. I summed them up a few weeks ago, but to echo that again: a striking setting, unique voice, and original hook are important.

Glass monument with names of murdered Jews in a park in Paris.
Holocaust memorial in Paris at the Place René Viviani. My own attempt at translation: “Read their name; your memory is their monument.”

With the translated books I’ve read recently, the author’s nationality and culture were pivotal in achieving those three essentials. So it’s not surprising, really, that different stories are the ones being told.

And as I said before, that’s a good thing. We want to hear new stories, to learn other histories, and we certainly want them told in their Own Voices. But while we seek out differences, we must not be blind to similarities, or to perceptions. Jade enlightened me about the concept of habitus: ideas and dispositions conditioned by our surroundings and upbringing, which influence how we interpret things.

Translators are trained to be aware of their own habitus as they work. I doubt the mass markets are, though. Was a South Korean tale of rebellion and the breakdown of societal structure big news because it contradicts our stereotypes of the region? Was The Queue a successful import because it portrays secular Middle Eastern protagonists more than Muslim ones?

We should watch for the influence of habitus as we venture into foreign literature. When we read about struggles in distant lands, let’s consider whether we prefer characters to be quite different from us, perhaps so we can tell ourselves it would never happen here. Is that healthy, or realistic? Is it interfering with our ability to empathise?

For more reading during Women in Translation month and beyond, there are great recommendations in this Women Writers Network chat, and on Rita Gould’s blog. You can follow the WITmonth hashtag on Twitter, and there’s also this fascinating insight into translation from Lucy North on Bookwitty.

Many of those offerings look intriguing and wonderful. My next stop, however, might be Asleep or The Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto. Their blurbs don’t play up foreign settings, but rather present stories of relationships and inner turmoil that might end up being surprisingly recognisable. Something a little similar for a change.

Happy explorations, everyone!

Sign Language Poetry

This Week’s Bit of String: Children’s hands tied to their chairs

Imagine going to a special school, for children who share with you a unique difference from much of the world. But if you use this difference, you’ll be punished. This school tries to make you as un-different as possible, in accordance with the wishes of Those Who Know Best.

It would be a bit like taking Defence Against the Dark Arts without being allowed to do magic, wouldn’t it?

Shockingly, this was the experience for many hearing impaired children from 1880, when hearing people took over the deaf schools and prohibited sign language, through the 1960s and possibly even the 70s. One woman who went to deaf school in the 70s remembers that if she were caught signing there—despite coming from a deaf family with whom she signed all the time at home, not to mention her classmates were deaf—her hands would be tied behind her to her chair.

Curbing minority languages has a long history. African slaves brought to Haiti were banned from drumming, as they’d used drums to communicate over long distances. The drum again became an important art form to Haitians once they’d battled their freedom back. Gaelic and Welsh were previously marginalised by the British education system before making a comeback.

Likewise, sign language is once again a vital means of communication for the hearing impaired. It is becoming more of a fixture in public life, too, including at Ledbury Poetry Festival on the 8th of July, when I attended an event showcasing British Sign Language (BSL) Poetry.

Sign Art
Tudor street in Ledbury
Ledbury street

I’m ashamed to say it never occurred to me that sign language poetry existed (also known as sign art). I was thankful for the opportunity to be enlightened.

Ledbury’s event featured the signed poetry of Paul Scott. How can you have poetry without words? Well, poetry is more than just words, I would argue. It is emotion, rhyme and rhythm. You can have all those things without words.

Mr. Scott makes his poems rhyme by using repeated hand gestures, coming back to the same signed refrain, in a way. There is certainly rhythm in his movement. These elements were further illustrated at this performance with Victoria Punch’s ‘vocal gestures.’ She did not use words to echo Mr. Scott’s poetry, but sang notes and sounds to correspond with his phrases. This way, she did not detract attention from his language but lent emphasis to its patterns.

The performance was further complemented by film-poetry by Helen Dewbery and Chaucer Cameron. Most of the images used were abstract, and timed to correspond with Mr. Scott’s phrasing, as Ms. Punch’s vocals were. In all, this became a rich sensory experience while also allowing us a glimpse into the world of those whom some might see as sensorily deprived. Very fitting, as the message of Mr. Scott’s poems is that he feels the world deeply and wants us to know he is not deprived.

Matters of Translation

Because BSL uses a different syntax to English, hostess Kyra Pollitt did not offer a straightforward interpretation, but gave a summary of the poems between performances. This method made me realise the power of sign language. A single hand motion and/ or facial expression can indicate a great deal, without equivalent sentences being necessary. These generously provide the emotion necessary to poetry.

Tudor-sided corner building with gothic-style tower.
Ledbury’s former library building

Signed poetry can easily utilise the second person point of view. Mr. Scott’s poem ‘Who Stole My Heart’ implicated us as an audience, not in an excessively accusing way, but by making us aware of issues that concern him. Some of the audience felt this new language was more open to interpretation, but it seemed very direct to me (particularly when teamed with the preceding summary, the vocals and the film).

Other unique sign language qualities which enhance poetry: it allows for simultaneous symbols, which can add layers of meaning. It’s also a constantly, rapidly evolving means of communication, enabling the creation of new words to suit the work. There’s a cinematic aspect to it: sign language poets can zoom in or out, pan or freeze. As Ms. Pollitt described the art form, it creates ‘a collage of experience, making a medley.’

This uplifting event forced me to realise how intimate, and perhaps healthy it is to have an occasional holiday from words. I don’t know about you, but for me as a writer I’m often describing or narrating things in my mind. Of course it’s good to keep exercising those author muscles, but sometimes the phrases we’re turning turn our attention from the people in front of us.

This, on the other hand, was poetry with its heart on its sleeve, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. It’s scary that this form of communication was repressed for so long and generations missed out on learning from it–but as so often happens, trying to stifle a group of people results in feeding their resourcefulness and creativity. For other examples of sign language poetry, here is DeafFirefly’s website, linking to her YouTube channel and to the pages of other sign language poets.

Are the Best Characters Bad?

This Week’s Bit of String: Kindergarten boyfriends

I fell in love with a kindergarten classmate, pretty much because he helped me out of my smock in Art class. He played rough at recess and made fun of the other kids sometimes. Still, for the next couple of years I proudly let him haul me to a back corner of the library or under the slide for a kiss.

Once I tried to explain something to him in class, and he rolled his eyes and cut me off: ‘Shut up, dear.’ I thrilled inside, that he’d called me dear.

See, I didn’t like him because he could be uncouth and unpleasant. I liked him despite those things.

I believe it’s that way with characters too. This week marked the twentieth anniversary of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone being published. As the series developed, Snape —‘Professor Snape, Harry’—and even Draco emerged as fan favourites among many beloved characters. However, I doubt many readers liked them in the first or second books.

My theory is, we enjoy reading about unpleasant characters because they’re different from ourselves, and they thicken the plot. But most of us only love those characters when they’ve got something else going for them. What do you think?

After all, ‘badness’ comes in different shades. So without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce…

The Scale of Badness
  1. The rehabilitated
    These characters are recovering from terrible pasts, but often end up being quite good, out of guilt. Think of Magwitch from Great Expectations; Sonia from Crime and Punishment; Cassie and maybe St. Clare too, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Adam and (later) Cal in East of Eden.
Rose
‘Roses have thorns, they say…’

2. The cheeky buggers and grumpy gits
They’re not particularly pleasant, but they’re funny about it. They may be a little tortured inside, trying to hold the world at bay, or they may just be too cool for school. I’d put Yossarian here, and Rhett Butler.

3. The rebels
They have a bad reputation, but they aren’t really hurting anyone. A lot of the girls from Girl, Interrupted would be here. Anna Karenina, Holden Caulfield, Hester Prynne, Elphaba, Kevalier and Klay.

4. The bullies
They’re mean, but usually ignorant of, or indifferent to, their effect on people. When forced to confront the consequences, they may make excuses and shy away from remorse—but they’ll probably also stop. I’ve got one of these bullies in my book, and I believe through most of JK Rowling’s books, this is the category for Snape.

5. The desperate
These characters are in the opposite trajectory to Category 1 characters. Instead of powerful guilt moving them to be good, aching need moves them to be bad, possibly very bad. Raskolnikov starts out here, before moving throughout Crime and Punishment towards being a 1. Most villains probably fit here, too: Francis Davey in Jamaica Inn, Bob Ewell in to Kill a Mockingbird, Lady Macbeth.

6. The sadists
It’s rare to find characters who actively enjoy inflicting pain. They’re more commonly found in genre fiction. We’re talking Voldemort, or various serial killers from psychological thrillers.

Tipping the Scales

These categories aren’t distinct; their borders are fuzzy and crossable. And we writers have tools to tinker almost any type of ‘bad’ character and endear them to readers.

First, we give them backstory. Let’s face it, who isn’t a sucker for a character who’s had a tough life?

Second, we can give them a sense of humour. A little banter can help someone get away with a lot. (Joss Whedon is the boss of writing dastardly yet hilarious villains.)

Sunset-lit chapel
Even churches love sinners. They’d be pointless without them.

Third, give the character a degree of self-awareness. If they’re doing something hurtful, let them be conflicted about it or feel badly afterwards.

Finally, let them love. Love is the ultimate redeemer; all is forgiven once we know a person is capable of it. Sure, Snape was brave, but it’s his ‘Always’ that weakens readers’ knees.

‘Give Me Your Misfits, Your Rejects…’

These tricks manipulate readers to accept characters’ unsavoury actions, even if they don’t ameliorate the consequences. We need all the tricks we can get because chances are, we’ll keep writing about people who fall somewhere on The Scale.

There’s nothing wrong with good characters. They can be nuanced too. But we deal in accessibility and believability, and those require imperfection.

My novel Artefacts tackles religious differences. During a brief conversation, the Christian character (by no means perfect), argues for his beliefs:

              ‘Jesus actually was human, and divine, so that’s as accessible as it gets, right?’
              But He never sinned, Helen thought. Being human would be a cinch without guilt.

The guilty—whether that guilt is perceived, exaggerated, heavy or nagging—they are the ones whose stories beg to be told.

As I think this through I picture something like the Statue of Liberty. A writer stands at the foot of a giant, formidable yet beckoning Muse that guards vast frontiers of story. There at the entry point, we hold signs like Emma Lazarus’s poem: ‘Give me your misfits, your rejects, your hunched and shamed yearning for redemption.’

Do you see it too?

How to Write a Classic

This Week’s Bit of String: Risky book rescue

Induction week at my new job. We’re told to introduce ourselves with quirky facts.

A woman who immigrated from Russia once ran into a burning building to rescue a book. It was a rare, century-old encyclopaedia of horses.

Of course, my quirky fact is that I’ve written a novel (or two or three…). I practise my elevator pitch on them. The youngest newbie among us, who’s apparently won baton-twirling competitions, says, ‘I’d definitely read that.’ I assure them it’s worth saving from an inferno.

There’s a man in the group who’s never seen a single Star Wars film. I wonder if he feels left out because of the constant references to it. I’ve been wondering the same about people who have never read the classics. Is foundational knowledge of literary classics worthwhile? Does it help one better appreciate other arts and literature? What does it mean to be a classic, anyway, and might we write one ourselves?

Defining Classics

With help from Merriam-Websters, we can construe classics broadly if we choose. A classic sets a high standard in a particular form—any form. Therefore, Star Wars might not be a classic like Citizen Kane or Casablanca, but it can be a classic Sci-Fi film, and books from any genre can be classics, too.

Brighton hotel on the site of Dickens' favourite inn.
I’m the sort of classics nerd who photographed this monstrous Brighton hotel just because its Blue Plaque told me Charles Dickens enjoyed staying on this site.

The strictest definition applies to literature of ancient Greece. These works influenced Shakespeare, who arguably enabled the evolution of most fiction. They are more pervasive than some might realise, frequently revived in cinema and even young adult books, plus forming the basis of our vocabulary with phrases such as siren, Oedipal complex, and Achilles heel.

In the Twittersphere, Leslie Scott gave me this wonderful definition: ‘If I instantly think “I want my kid to read this” … it’s a classic. There has to be a life lesson I need to share with my child.’ This allows classics a personal nature: we choose our own individual canon.

It also brings up another necessary quality: Classic literature conveys, often with impressive (if intimidating) scope, its originating time period. The Iliad tells us about political and religious alliances of ancient Greece. Bleak House portrays socioeconomic Victorian issues, even lampooning religious charities, and depicting the plight of women to an extent.

When contemplating which books we want out children to read, we also consider what we want them to learn from the times in which we’ve lived.

Updating Classics

So what books do we read today that might become classics of the future? Claire King, while admitting classic literature can be interesting from an ‘art history perspective,’ feels contemporary literature is more resonant. I agree there is a more accessible, sincere vein in today’s literature (including Claire’s gorgeous book The Night Rainbow). But do they resonate only with our contemporaries, or humanity throughout the ages?

With an increasing push for literature to be inclusive of social class, sexual preference, and ethnicity, today’s great works could have more staying power. The lack of diversity in some classics makes them seem ‘dull and patriarchal,’ Rita Gould tweets. Classics should be broad enough to at least acknowledge all aspects of a society.

Classic Features:

Characters: The protagonist should be particularly memorable, strong, and the perfect messenger. Elizabeth Bennett, Harry Potter, even flawed Miss Havisham or Macbeth are unforgettable because their roots are clearly mapped, forcing us to wonder if we, too, could be swayed.

'Nevermore' Jack o'Lantern inspired by Poe's The Raven
I’ve also been known to nerdily base jack o’lanterns on classics.

Setting: A classic boldly recreates its location. It will devote pages, almost give the setting its own voice. The Congolese jungles of The Poisonwood Bible; Arundhati Roy’s portrayal of Kerala in The God of Small Things, shown through children’s eyes without glossing over political unrest.

Message: It’s tricky to balance with character, and is perhaps what puts people off the original classics. A classic must convey an idea. In my opinion, Romeo and Juliet’s characterisation suffers for being idea-driven, but the message about love’s (or infatuation’s) power lives on. More contemporary writers like Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood, etc, better strike the balance.

Scope: We may groan at their size, but classics use their heft to diligently represent their culture. It enables Tolstoy to follow up on characters of various social status in Anna Karenina (although I’m still miffed he barely bothered mentioning the eponymous heroine in the last section). It enables Michael Chabon to interweave characters of diverse races and proclivities in Telegraph Avenue.

Detail: While covering broad topics and sweeping settings, a classic also offers telescopic detail rendering its populace and landscape vivid—including cultural landscape. Contemporary writers aren’t shy about teasing references to society’s peculiarities, and nor were traditional ones.

A bit of string: Most classics take their great shape from the slightest twist. Modern examples—the discovery of an unsent letter in Byatt’s Possession, the demise of a cheeky parrot in Love in the Time of Cholera—are slimmed proportions of ancient Greek ones: Paris falling for Helen, Jocasta heeding a prophecy about her infant son.

There are more options for defining classics, as listed in this excellent New York Review of Books article. Put together, by writers of any time period, they make books we hope our children will cherish, books worth saving from the ravages of time—and fire. What are the classics of your life?