If You Like It Be Prepared to Find a Price on It

This Week’s Bit of String: Campus costs

Confession time: I finished my university degree illegally. In my state, people receiving benefits weren’t allowed to pursue the extra financial burden of higher education (sometimes ‘Live free or die’ translates to ‘Live free and let others fall by the wayside.’) I was a single mother employed in per diem work, so I depended on state medical insurance and also some childcare reimbursement.

But while doing as much work as I could find, I completed my studies in the evenings. I relished the variety of lessons at the local community college and appreciated the more mature student population, often keener on their studies than my cohorts at the university I’d attended before I was pregnant.

Even that community college cost thousands of dollars per semester. I read and wrote so much, I’m sure it improved my work. But the expenditure, the hectic schedule in my son’s first months, not to mention the risk of incurring New Hampshire’s wrath… Could I have learned those things through independent study, through the myriad of recently sprouted online support networks and through regimented practice? Did my degree increase my job prospects or pay grade?

Shopping Around
Japanese Garden in the courtyard of the Humanities building at University of Warwick
Japanese Garden in the courtyard of the Humanities building at University of Warwick

My son is starting A-Levels, the course of study in the UK for 16-18-year-olds. We’ve been doing research to ensure his subjects will be acceptable to whatever university he attends after. Maths and Philosophy degrees, Education and Psychology, a year abroad in Scandinavia…it reminds me how exciting it is to get sucked into the heart of a subject.

My reminiscences were enabled by a trip to the University of Warwick campus for the National Association of Writers Groups’ annual festival. En-suite bathrooms! Fountains and grassy rooftops! A Krispy Kreme counter in the campus grocery store! Exercise bikes and treadmills equipped with screens so you can Mahjongg while you run!

It’s a big deal here how much universities cost, but at £9000 per year it’s far less than American ones charge. And I’m hesitant to condemn the charge. I want my kid’s professors to earn a good wage, and I don’t expect the rather strapped government to fully subsidise this.

Tuition & Fees

Likewise, I want the speakers at NAWG Fest to be paid well. Writers’ pay at festivals is an issue of longstanding complexity. Quite a few attendees expressed concerns about the cost, and I sympathise, as there were a lot of pensioners among our gathering. But we must also consider that in addition to workshops and networking opportunities, our fees covered ample meals and reasonably comfortable accommodation, plus use of campus facilities.

Gardens and fountains at University of Warwick
University of Warwick campus

What price can we put on jumpstarting our creativity? I spent £180 for a night’s stay, four meals and two workshops. I managed to squeeze in a gym session before the gala dinner, and I skipped the Annual General Meeting to take advantage of the swimming pool. A double bed and a bathroom of my own—invaluable to any wife and mum.

The workshop instructors had lengthy experience yet were genuinely interested in our work and ideas. The whole conference, I think, is designed especially for people newly exploring the craft of writing. I recommend it to those starting out because there’s no snobbery, and plenty of accessibility and warmth.

As someone who’s not starting out or dabbling, the concepts introduced in workshops on characterisation and plotting were somewhat familiar. However, I can always do with certain reminders, of how to raise the stakes in my plot and how to probe a story’s What Ifs to find who’s really at its heart.

My writing life consists mainly of dragging myself through alone, in snatched moments often on a bus full of miserable, drunk, and/ or manic people. I get lost in what I’m writing (thank goodness) but as others can probably attest, we cling to our ideas especially when they’re few and far between in our crowded lives. It’s hard to put a price on having someone march in and say, “Oh but remember to consider this…”

Being in the company of other writers is perhaps the most precious thing. I love listening to people who come every year talk about their work, and people who’ve just taken up writing talk about what it means to them.

Selfie after the NAWG Fest gala dinner
Satisfied NAWG Fest attendee.

And it never, never gets old when someone takes an interest in my work. At the gala dinner and awards ceremony, I was assigned to a table with one of my tutors from earlier, and various writers, novice and veteran, from different parts of the country. They were all cheering my shortlisted story and me on, ensuring that even without the first prize trophy, I left feeling satisfied and invigorated (the chocolate cake may well have helped).

Maybe this could have been achieved by other, cheaper means. But as with attending university, the extra money could be worth it because we need the corralling, cajoling, and challenging that comes with a comprehensive experience rather than the usual bits and pieces we use to sustain our artistic existences. And we should expect those benefits not to be free when they come with the help of others or the use of their institutions.

What kinds of writing experiences have you paid for? What constitutes value for money, and what kinds of free activities help give you a boost?

Making Hay

This Week’s Bit of String: Do the books make the town or does the town make the books?
Murder and Mayhem bookshop, with a hound painted on the front.
Check out this crime story bookshop!

The bus wound past hills dripping buttercups into golden meadow pools at their feet, and past chomping sheep, unabashedly sheeplike and not the least bit sheepish. I disembarked beneath the castle ruins in Hay-on-Wye. As I made my way through busy, merry little streets, I saw at least one bookshop on each.

I camped on the other side of the Wye, about a mile from the festival site, so for each event I crossed through town. Guitar players lounged outside cafes and pubs, the queue for the sheep’s milk ice cream parlour outlined the market square,

Stand offering notebooks with covers salvaged from old hardbacks and record albums.
Rebound Books. I’d take them all!

and a man with his inebriated accomplice tried to sell anti-religion t-shirts to a polite elderly couple. The local Big Issue seller wore a scuba diving suit in the rain, and sheep-shagging costume in the hot sun.

Houses on the Brecon Road to the festival got in on the game, hiring vending trucks or just selling packages of biscuits and copies of the Guardian. One stand offered wonderful notebooks made from vintage hardcovers. A church set up a facepainting marquee and chatted to visitors about their stories, sending them off with free books about faith. Another stand offered poems and prints thereof for sale.

Flowers in one of the festival courtyards
At the festival

The festival itself was a network of baize walkways and shining white marquees around courtyards of sun loungers and fairy lights.

With all this scenery to take in, I barely wrote a word during my weekend away. It’s tricky to balance time spent absorbing writing material while actually striving to write it down…or is that just me?

Books for Activists, Activists for Books

The first talk I attended was about finance. Partly to challenge myself, but mostly because Marcus Brigstocke co-hosted it. His frank, laid-back humour was evident as he interviewed a professor on the financial industry. David Pitt-Watson reminded us the financial sector uses our money, and we should make our wishes known to it. He suggests write to pension funds and other companies we may be invested in, to insist our money is in ethical causes, such as green energy.

The Poetry Bookshop
I bought The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah here from his former agent who knows him well.

Late that evening I came to Benjamin Zephaniah’s talk about his new autobiography. He exuded utter delight, dreadlocks swishing as he gifted us his rhymes. He says he created many of his poems out of anger, at racism and poverty. But he didn’t seem angry in the slightest. Maybe just for that night, because he was there at Hay with an enormous, rightly appreciative audience. Or maybe creating those poems helped dispel the anger somewhat while still adding fuel to his activism.

Hearing Voices

After a stormy night, I hiked various paths between England and Wales, coming to shelter from the downpour under a town centre marquee where a group of men sang sea shanties. Back at the festival in the afternoon, I got the most delicious smoothie of my life and attended an Ian McEwan interview. On getting story ideas, Mr. McEwan says, ‘I’ll hear an inner voice, and like the cadence of it, and want to find out who’s speaking.’

Dresses and flowers made of book pages and sheet music
A charity shop reflects the bookish theme with its page art.

I wonder if he ever finds the voices are giving a brief diatribe or vignette rather than a full story. That happens to me sometimes. Do I need to be more intrepid in tracking them?

Still, the incredibly successful novelist’s passion for finding out about characters was reflected, somewhat askew, in Jim Broadbent’s interview later. Intriguingly, the actor devised a plot for a graphic novel called Dull Margaret, based on a painting by Bruegel the Elder. This was recently brought to life by Dix, an illustrator for the Guardian. I was struck by Mr. Broadbent’s relaxed approach to story-writing, paraphrased here:

Big screen surrounded by cutouts of leaves and plants in an event marquee.
One of the busy festival venues

Audience member: So is the need for love, is that the message of the book?
Jim Broadbent: Message? Yes, I suppose it might be. It’s just the story, you know.
Another Audience member: Graphic novels are popular with young adults. Are they your target audience, or who is the ideal reader you had in mind?
Jim Broadbent: (Smiling) Well, me. I was ready to read it.

He was obviously very taken with his character, a mistreated woman who tries to get her own back. If only that passion for character were enough to get the rest of us published. Or are we just not quite sufficiently mad about ours?

Defining Poets

I went to Simon Armitage’s lecture on Bob Dylan’s Nobel for ‘creating new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.’ He assessed Dylan’s lyrics as less-than-spectacular poetry. But perhaps, he suggested,

Brick house on the Wye River
Would I get more writing done in this house, or would the river lure me constantly away?

Dylan’s ability to reinvent himself, his individual language and spontaneity, were a liberating influence. ‘The problem with sticking it to the man,’ Armitage remarked, ‘is that the more successful you become at it, the more you are the man.’

For the final evening in Hay I listened to a reading of WWI poet Wilfred Owen’s letters and work, stunningly presented by festival founder Peter Florence. I had no idea how raw and ahead-of-his time these were. And Owen underwent such a transformation. Initially he wrote to his mother that he didn’t wish to go to war, that he could serve the country better alive than dead, thanks to the spring of verse welling within. In the end he insisted he return to the front even after a head injury because the war made him a true poet.

Grand facade of the Richard Booth bookshop
Books from around the world! I bought a maths one to bring home to my son, about ancient counting systems and the concept of infinity.

It’s sad in a way, that he was right, that he is known as a ‘War Poet.’ But it was an incredibly important role. It makes me wonder what makes us artists. Is it our art’s substance (which largely is foisted upon us; the residue of past experience or that ‘inner voice’ appearing from nowhere) or the form we work to give it?

Look at Hay, though. A beautiful, hill-guarded town with lots of old streets intact and the Wye alongside it—yet it’s reinvented itself as a book and festival town, and that’s what brings most of us there. I seriously recommend it.

Joys of a ‘Little’ Festival

This Week’s Bit of String: Voices from the back of the bus

When I’m late for the more pleasant 65 bus home from work, I have to take the 61. Along with having a less scenic route, the 61 tends to attract drunk men. It’s a popular mode of transport with students as well, which doesn’t bother me—but seems to offend the aforementioned drunk men.

One evening on the 61, I read my book while the young adults from the special needs college laughed loudly and exchanged jibes in the back. Suddenly the man in front of me, so drenched in spirits he smelled medicinal, started shouting at them.

‘Shut your mouths! Didn’t your mums teach you to keep quiet on buses?’

I can’t imagine what he expected quiet for; it was five in the afternoon, not exactly bedtime, and he didn’t appear to be revising for a PhD or anything. The kids were subdued and rather frightened by his tirade, and I guess I was too, because I couldn’t bring myself to say anything in their defence. No one else did either.

Fast forward a month, add the resurgence of an old middle-of-the-night idea, and my turbulent brain managed to toss ashore a short story about a similar bus incident, this time witnessed by a retired woman who then recruits her friends to counteract such unmannerly behaviour using surprising and rather humorous methods.

The nice thing about being a writer is that even though we have shy and retiring moments, our voices surface later. And sometimes, eventually, they even get heard. I had fortunately been invited by John Holland, curator of Stroud Short Stories, to participate in a short story panel at the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival on the 21st of April. It would be the perfect opportunity to remedy (if in a delayed and fictional sense) my shameful silence on the 61.

Giving Voice
Chalk directions into the schoolhouse for the Festival.
I loved the chalk signs welcoming us to the Festival.

Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival—known as HULitFest—is remarkable for recognising voices which other Festivals brush over. For example, last year its founder, Debbie Young, hosted a super-relevant talk on writing about disability and illness, by people with firsthand experience. I blogged about it here.

This year, I attended more panels, populated by independent and self-published authors who might be ignored at larger events. One was ‘Writing Your Passion,’ made up of six writers on subject matter unyielding to broader market demands. Yet their devotion to their work and the originality of their concepts had me pretty convinced.

Peter Lay cowrote a book on life lessons and philosophy, with a Chinese friend. The beautiful book they created is printed with English and Chinese on each page. Bill Fairney has written several volumes on his varied but very specific interests. One example is his fabulously titled Fifty Shades of Yarg, the story of the Cornish cheese (written as Will Fenn). Lynne Pardoe’s books are based on her unique experiences as a social worker. She was determined to show the happy endings she got to see as well as the hard realities. Jann Tracy wrote a painstakingly researched biography of Marie Corelli, a bestselling 19th century novelist who was pivotal in preserving Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-Upon-Avon—but is largely forgotten now.

Books purchased from Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival.
Haul from HULitFest–so far! More to be purchased in time. Love the bags they give out, too.

The final member of this panel, Jacci Gooding, writes primarily horror stories, which isn’t usually my genre, but she spoke with such fantastic wit that I became an instant fan. She observed, ‘People are weird. We like weird. Takes us out of our day jobs.’

For me, these quirky stories make HULitFest special. There’s no charge for the talks or readings; they want you to buy the authors’ books instead. Not many festivals or bookshops offer stories about cheese, about forgotten female figures, or from authors like Gooding who describes inspiration for one of her scary book covers thus: ‘I was looking at my hen, and I thought, “If I lay down in front of her, she’d eat me.”’

Really, other booksellers should give all these a go. What’s not to like?

Showcasing the Whole Writer

Another unique strength of HULitFest is its art exhibit. Most of the pieces displayed in the town’s Methodist Church as part of the Festival were drawn, stitched, photographed or otherwise created by the very authors featured in the talks and selling their books in the school gymnasium.

Stained glass window in a wedge of ceiling
Window in the Methodist Church, where the Art Exhibit is held.

In addition to showcasing formidable talents, the art exhibit gives festival goers additional insight to the writing mind. What inspires, calms, or haunts the authors, conveyed here in different form. Ellie Stevenson, another writer on the short story panel, displayed gorgeous photographs. Not surprising, perhaps, that the author of such original tales as ‘Watching Charlotte Bronte Die’ has a great eye for snapshots. But it is an aspect we don’t always get to see about writers.

Finally, the smaller (but popular and growing!) size of HULitFest allows festivalgoers to mingle with the authors; while we buy their books, picnic together, wander the town. If you have timid moments as I sometimes do, it’s quite motivating to experience this accessibility. And I did enjoy airing my tale that originated on the 61 bus, and seeing the audience enjoy the imaginary outcome. Maybe next time I’ll have more confidence to make that fiction real.

Do you use stories to make up for lost chances or stifled moments? What events have you encountered that help bring out unheard voices?

Short Stuff

This Week’s Bit of String: Though she be little…

When I was a teaching assistant, most of my students were taller than I was. During my first year, I supported a particularly boisterous Year 9 class, and as I was trying to settle them one day, a very tall boy who later got expelled for bringing brass knuckles to school loomed over me with a grin. ‘Miss, you’re small.’

‘Yes—but mighty. Sit down!’ And would you believe it, he did. For a little while.

Statue of a 'Muse' from Roman times.
Also at the Louvre: Roman statue of a Muse. Finally found her!

Any fans of art and literature will know decreased size doesn’t detract from power. At the Louvre, I was struck by how small the Mona Lisa was—seemingly no bigger than a standard A4 sheet of paper. Meanwhile, on the opposite wall hung a massive depiction of the wedding at Cana, Jesus’ first miracle. Which does everyone remember? By creating a small portrait, Da Vinci drew focus to just one figure, and the nuances of her expression. With large-scale pictures of entire scenes, it’s hard for viewers to settle their attention.

Beginning, Middle, and End

So it can be with short stories versus novels. I’ve written previously about the implications of each literary form, but I’ve been doing more short story research lately. I covered Raymond Carver and Alice Munro, since they’re seen as greats in the genre, and I read a volume by Annie Proulx, because I loved The Shipping News. As someone always seeking story ideas (knowing that many of those ideas will turn only into notes, snapshots, or vignettes rather than actual stories), I enjoyed studying these works and wondering, What was the starting point for this story? How did the writer make it work?

Certainly the hardest thing for me in turning an idea into a story is ensuring development; pinpointing a beginning, middle, and end. The short story is more flexible than the novel. Equal attention need not be paid to beginning, middle, and end—one or more can merely be implied. Munro likes starting stories with a little anecdote that happens later, or with someone looking back to a seemingly random detail. And a few of Carver’s and Proulx’s stories left the endings ambiguous.

Mountainside view of the Swift Diamond River, bordered by pines, in New Hampshire
Ah, the mountains, rivers, and woods of home…

My favourites were a couple of Carver’s stories, “Cathedral” and “A Small Good Thing,” both stories that realistically but surprisingly diffused tension between very different characters with warmth. I also loved Annie Proulx’s “The Unclouded Day,” not just for its great title and the description of my native New England wild places. There was its completeness, and humour with just enough insight into the protagonist to sense good intentions. Again, there was warmth in this story.

That’s my personal taste: a story can narrate a bleak event (for example, the death of a child, as in “A Small Good Thing”), so long as there’s an element of kindness between at least a couple of the characters. And yes, I do like a decent arc, no matter how short: you don’t have to give me the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but I’d jolly well like an idea of where the colours lead.

Short Story Round-Up

On Twitter, I asked about other writers’ favourite short stories, and their own criteria for a great one. Stephen Tuffin, who recently judged and hosted a fabulous new event, The Squat Pen Rests championship in short fiction, provided a thorough endorsement of Truman Capote. I have to agree; his “A Christmas Memory” is my absolute favourite in the festive season.

Stephen also tweeted about what makes a great story: ‘A great short has to leave me with an afterglow. As if I’ve been gifted something meaningful and relevant. Great shorts need more reader input but the effort is rewarding and leaves me feeling I’ve been shown another world, different but the same as my own.’

The short story volumes on my bookshelves
Shelfie from my short stories section

Fantasy author Grace Crandall recommends Ray Bradbury’s stories. I had actually read “The Foghorn” just the other week, when a friend at a discussion group provided it as an example of a great, atmospheric tale. Grace says, ‘‘‘The Rocket” and “The Beggar of O’Connell Bridge” are two of my favorites of his. I think a big key to short stories is having a conclusive emotional arc, and he’s such an expert at delving into human nature and feelings.’

Science fiction writer Madd_Fictional, curator of celebrated writing hashtag #SlapDashSat, recommends Harlan Ellison: ‘Nothing like a good speculative fiction short story that presents a left-of-center theme, laced with poignant social commentary that usually features protagonists who are morally ambiguous.’ Sounds good to me!

Finally, Laurie Garrison of the invaluable Women Writers School pointed me toward Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” because it portrays ‘a whirlwind of emotion in just a few hundred words. And there’s such brilliant irony to it.’ It’s another perfect little complete tale.

What are your favourite short stories, and have you encountered any particular challenges in reading or writing them?

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?