Where the People Are

This Week’s Bit of String: Three kids and a saw

Visiting my parents’ New Hampshire town several summers ago, my husband and I wandered down the pre-re-vitalised Main Street. In front of a once fine, colonial-style house now leaning and peeling, a little boy stood barefoot on the drive, twirling a rusted coping saw. Two small girls watched from the weedy front lawn, their expressions grave.

A scrawny mum in a nightdress shouted at them to get inside and watch TV. My husband and I exchanged looks. Were these the Small Town Values politicians always banged on about?

Trees at dawn, towering over traffic lights
The Leafy Suburbs.

What bothers me about the Small Town Values spiel isn’t that it writes off the city as immoral; morality is irrelevant. (How dull would our writing be if everyone were moral?) It’s that it abets the impression that small towns are idyllic places where nothing bad ever happens. It minimises the challenges faced by those living there.

It’s the same on this side of the ocean. I worked in one of the biggest secondary schools in a large county, but our school was populous mainly because it drew on twenty-something ‘feeder’ primary schools, some from very small towns. Government inspectors seemed dismissive of our students’ issues because we were based in ‘the leafy suburbs.’

However, our area is also classed as one of ‘rural deprivation,’ with an exceptionally high incidence of substance abuse and mental disabilities. These places are still riddled with real people, living hard stories.

Finding the Ideas

In my writing, I like setting longer projects in small towns, or at least not very big cities. Yes, my life experience has been gained there, but also it’s easier to tie threads together. You get added layers when your characters already know each other, or at least pass each other by with some regularity.

Blackboard outside pub reading: Vacancy, Customers Required...
Also the Leafy Suburbs.

For shorter projects, though, the city is magic. Every person is a puzzle, and the way they brush by creates a range of potential interaction. It’s easy to find surprising juxtapositions: A mobile lingerie fitting shop setting up next to some well-jacketed, buttoned-up Jehovah’s witnesses and their pamphlets. A vegan Indian food stall next to one selling leather goods. Everyone is a stranger and capable of surprise; a twist here can easily be summed up in a sentence or a symbol.

I’m currently reading Flaneuse, Lauren Elkin’s tribute to women who don’t just explore the city, but absorb it. I picked this book up inspired by a recent Women Writers Network Twitter chat (see other great recommendations here) about women writing the city. Our reasons for celebrating this are best summed up by Sarah Waters in The Paying Guests. “She loved these walks through London. She seemed, as she walked, to become porous, to soak in detail after detail; or else, like a battery, to become charged. Yes, that was it, she thought as she turned a corner: it wasn’t a liquid creeping, it was a tingle, something electric, something produced as if by the friction of her shoes against the streets. She was at her truest, it seemed to her, in these tingling moments–these moments when, paradoxically, she was at her most anonymous.”

It’s possible that the more our selves diminish, the more our surroundings gain stature, free to sow new ideas.

With their relentless array of sights and sounds, urban areas are perfect for very short, or “flash” fiction. A flash piece is a kernel of story, minute and representative of possibility. The best ones are so tightly packed, you can’t unfurl them without damage. All you can do is peer at the coiled layers from the outside, maybe roll it on your tongue to taste the bitter or the sweet, never daring to crunch.

Bristol Flash Walk

I recently had a piece featured in Bristol’s Flash Walk, an event with flash fiction stories read at different points between the Harbour and Bedminster. All provided fascinating, quick glances into city encounters—past, actual, or merely longed-for. We strained over traffic and alarms and rivers and inquisitive children to hear each story, and this added to the excitement.

Bristol Harbour reading
Actor Christopher Ryan reads “The Prodigal” in the iconic Bristol Harbour, with Colston Tower in the background.

My contribution hovered dangerously near the maximum word count of 400 and was called “The Prodigal,” about the famous slave trader/ Bristol benefactor Colston. The opening line launches right in: “When Edward Colston revisited the city of his birth some three hundred and eighty years later, he saw his name etched blood-red across the sky.

After the reading, which met with great laughter and applause at the right places, my husband asked me, “So where did Colston appear from? The afterlife?”

“Oh, I don’t know. You don’t have to, with flash fiction.” I could be totally wrong about this. But to me, that’s what suits flash fiction to city writing. You don’t have to look too deeply because something else comes along. I don’t know if I could finish a long project based in a city; I’d become distracted, I’d sink beneath the weight of all the what-ifs.

Escape to the Country

I tend to leave a city with a handful of kernels as well as some possible story-seeds. If I transplant a person or scenario from a more populous area to a smaller town or to a rural spot, it has room to grow. I can also gain a little control over other affecting factors and narrow down plot ideas.

Tail to tail, the swans fortify their nest.
“No luck hatching them swans, then?”

When I polled Twitter, more than half respondents (58%) said countryside wanders were better than city ones for gathering ideas. I love the countryside, but I often need an idea already germinating in my mind for these hikes to be fruitful in terms of story development.

I just can’t invent things without people to base them on. Though it’s lovely walking with no one else around, I find myself assigning human psychology to my surroundings anyway. The other day on a canal walk, I wondered if the young swan families at different points along the journey receive news of each other. Does Mrs. Stratford Park Swan know she’s the last one waiting for her eggs to hatch? Do Mr. and Mrs. Dudbridge Swan know the Eastington cygnets are only just learning to dive, and that the group has dwindled to 4? And do any of them know the whereabouts of the missing Ebley Swans? I imagined cunning mallards passing these tidbits on. Possibly trading gossip for a prime beakful of algae.

I don’t know if this shows a lack of imagination in me, or a surplus of projection. But this is how I tend to work: tugging bits of string out from the city and puttering with them in as close to the wilderness as I can find. Or, in my daily smaller-town life, suddenly realising that the customer or bus passenger I keep seeing is a massive multicoloured spool of thread just waiting for my mind to get tangled in.

Writing in the Wild

This Week’s Bit of String: Faux cave paintings and hilltop views

“So what sorts of things do you write?”

Do you dread this question like I do? I’ve learned to summarise individual novels I’m writing, to develop extra-short hooks and elevator pitches. But describing my entire work, from plays to novels to flash fiction, from speculative fiction to mythology-based to contemporary settings—that’s hard.

I find myself saying, “Oh, I sort of focus on people, family relationships… life, really.”

Paintings and pages and sketches laid out over the tables at the Arts Centre
All our work on display at the Arts Centre

Last Friday I joined an Art-Making Walk around the nearby town of Wotton-Under-Edge, kindly invited by the sculptor Martin Clarke, co-chair of Under the Edge Arts. Three miles in the hills, 6 stops along the way. At each stop, participants got fifteen minutes to create a piece of art.

The walkers were primarily artists, rendering scenes in pencil or paint, a couple venturing into brief verse. The first person I met was local artist Nicky Hill, who’s come out with her own illustrated children’s book boasting loads of vibrant animal characters. Check out her page to see her wonderful paintings.

For this event, I didn’t trust my brain to kick into gear six separate times inventing new scenarios for each location. So I’d invented a character, devised some backstory, and brought her along with me. It would be easier, surely, to make each stop an episode in her story.

Sign commemorating the trees on Wotton Hill.
Site 1: Wotton Hill

Our first location was a windy hill crowned by a fenced cluster of trees—the originals were planted to commemorate Waterloo. We all found those first fifteen minutes too quick. For me, I barely got my characters started. But the limitations forced us to be efficient.

En route to the next stop, an older lady with a felt flower on her hat posed The Question to me. I embellished my standard answer with, “Some of my stories are more far-fetched than others.”

Charcoal sketches of sun and wild animals on the rock face
Quarry art: Site 2

“Well, people are quite far-fetched,” she observed. “So of course their stories will be.”

Clearly I was in the right sort of crowd.

The second stop was a quarry,  one of the only sites I’d seen before. Quarry visitors, probably youths, had used charred sticks to decorate the rock face, not just with the usual pentagrams and melodramatic song lyrics, but also with cave painting-style art. I pictured one loner, maybe a somewhat dorky teen separating herself from the pack to create them. That previously gained image was instrumental in forming my character ahead of time.

Wild garlic lining the woodland path
Trekking to Site 3.

We hiked through the woods, surrounded by wild garlic blooms like fallen stars, to our third site. That’s where the fifteen-minute stops, surprisingly, started to get too long. I would jot down the bare bones of my character’s encounter or revelation for that setting, and have a few minutes left, so I’d keep waffling, wishing instead it was enough time to properly edit what I’d done.

The third stop was also where I met Edna. She was perhaps the eldest of our group, with the most difficulty walking—which only proved she was the most determined. She was very self-critical, but I liked her painting of the forest trees; their straight dark trunks criss-crossed with dashes of green leaves.

Materials arranged for work during our session in the clearing
Site 3: Coneygres

“I like how you captured the haphazardness of it,” I said.

She was pleased. “It’s encouraging when someone recognises what I’m trying to do. And it is haphazard, the springtime, isn’t it? That’s a good word. I think it’s absolutely delicious, all these greens.”

Delicious. I thought she’d hit on rather a good word, too. We journeyed to a new hillside lookout for our fourth stop, above a slope still bearing the terraces where monks tended vineyards centuries ago. Now, velvety-looking black cows and calves amble there.

Terraced hillsides
Site 4: Coombe Hill

One group member was primarily a photographer. I asked her how she got on at this stop. “Well,” she replied, “We’ve already done hilltop views, so I decided to take pictures of snails on cowpats, since it’s not something we usually think of.”

Makes sense to me.

Old stone house with rows of hedge garden
Site 5: Coombe House

Our fifth stop was a fine stone home with gardens in ‘shelves,’ as its artist owner described it. I sat with Edna and she asked, “What’s your story about? Is it sad?”

“It’s got sad bits, but it’s not all sad. It’s about life, you know?”

“Yeah.” The old woman nodded wisely. “It’s shit, isn’t it?”

I thought I must have misheard, but she clarified. “I mean, even if you’re filthy rich, I reckon life is a bit shit.”

There’s an excuse for “dark” writing, if anyone needs one.

Pony
Site 6: Holywell Leaze

Our final stop brought us to a picnicking area with neighbouring ponies sulky for attention. My character’s journey ended with the walk. I’d thought of a pivotal moment for each stop, taking my protagonist from preschool, to teen years (at the Quarry, of course), to university, engagement, the failing health of a parent, and then motherhood. The story might not be worth polishing, but it did make a complete first draft with a few salvageable parts.

Display of paintings and pages
Final installment of today’s story

I’d like to try the same sort of thing with maybe a better backstory or character; visiting select locations to represent different points in the plot. It’s a useful device, and I recommend it.

The writing, in the end, was rather like how we’d described people and spring and life throughout the day: sometimes far-fetched, sometimes haphazard and sad, and sometimes, yes, a bit shit. It’s not just me, is it?

Animals are Characters, Too

This Week’s Bit of String: Crying over cats

‘Miss?’ the Year Eleven boy asked me, tossing his carefully sleeked hair without looking up from the doodled serpents invading his Science BTEC exercise book. ‘Do you ever start randomly crying while you’re petting your cat, because you wish so much they could talk to you?’

I don’t think it’s ever brought me to tears, even when I was sixteen myself, but I definitely used to look in pet cats’ eyes and sense much present in them that we, their humans, missed.

The boy’s question brought to mind a passage from Muriel Barberry’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Renee refers to her ‘appreciation’ for her tenants’ cocker spaniel as: ‘that state of grace attained when one’s feelings are immediately accessible another creatures.’

Guinea pig terminally dissatisfied by food dish.
‘Here goes nothing.’

We now have only guinea pigs as pets, but their feelings are pretty darn accessible. They’re an important if timid part of our family, an affectionate interest uniting us as our son gets older. And if anyone doubts that animals are sentient, I defy them to look at a guinea pig, any guinea pig, and not be struck by the chronic consternation on their faces. It’s as if they’re constantly in dire need of food but always expecting to be disappointed.

Since animals cause us to reflect on what makes us alive, what makes us sentient (to use a rather unattractive, clinical-sounding word), and they bring us joy and unity—isn’t it right they should feature in literature?

Animal Voices

It’s easy to find animals in the fantasy genre. The dragons of Pern, the owls and thestrals of Hogwarts, the daemons of Lyra’s Oxford, the Noisy animals of New World in Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking series (oh, Manchee!)

So too they should be present in mainstream literature, sincewhen we write we attempt to reflect and learn from real life. Certainly animals have served as set pieces and symbols in literature since Homer told of Circe’s pigs and Polyphemus’ sheep. But in using them only as such, do we devalue their contributions to our lives?

Pictures in Warner Bros Leavesden studios paying tribute to animal actors in the Harry Potter series
Unsung heroes of the Harry Potter films.

There’s the pigeon offering occasional commentary in Pigeon English, and the freed parrot in Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. The parrot gets a chapter of his own: one long, continuous sentence. His thoughts fly free as he leaves the home he knew for decades, after his owner’s death. It’s nice to get these extra, imagined perspectives, but by making animal characters simply witnesses to the humans’ folly, they remain a little flat.

A great example of using animals realistically yet appreciatively is Marina Lewycka’s Two Caravans. Her novel about immigrants in the UK encompasses many points of view, including a dog. Different characters rate each other based on their respective reactions to Dog, and he leaps in to save the day at the end.

The novel also features scenes in a chicken-packing factory, which convinced me to buy only free-range products ever after. Her depiction linked callous attitudes about animals to abuse and exploitation of migrant workers. It should hardly have been surprising, but it had a somewhat revelatory effect on me.

Animal Roles
Cat posing in line with flowerpots.
Catmouflage: They see all and know all.

Although these authors have gone to great imaginary lengths to use animals as characters and assign voices to them, there are other ways to integrate our furry (or feathery or scaly) friends. Why is it so rare to encounter human characters who own pets? Allusions to a pet can serve as useful shortcuts establishing character. Are they a dog person, a cat person, a horse person, maybe something more unusual like a snake person?

In my novel The Wrong Ten Seconds, treatment of a dog catalyses the action. Pets are a central part of characters’ lives. Introducing one of the protagonists, Lydia, I described her car:

‘The cluttered Fiesta—Mabel—smelled of takeaway curry and chips, cat litter bought in bulk, and hand sanitiser.’

Beyond representing personality traits of their owners, including pets in stories gives humans opportunity for insight. Lydia is self-aware enough to know that she needs her cat, Slim Shady, more than he needs her. She recognises his purr doesn’t always convey happiness, but sometimes cloaks fear. The purr indicates to her:

‘You only get away with this because I in my benevolence allow it.’

Animals at the Beginning

In my current novel, about Eve and the (presumed) first family of humans, animals have an even bigger role. As much as Eve and Adam’s lives changed on their expulsion from Eden, think what it meant for the animals! Through no fault of their own, they had to leave paradise as well, and were thence forward seen as fair game. Literally.

Surely humans didn’t go straight from discovering wildlife wonders in Eden, to wearing animal hides and eating meat outside its walls. The sudden need to provide for themselves would change things, but it would not be a comfortable adjustment. Tension grows between Eve and Adam when he starts out eating fish:

‘What’s next, killing cows? Lions, lambs? You could roast one of the angels.’
‘Don’t speak to me like that, woman! I’m not the one who ever sought something I wasn’t supposed to take.’

The way each character relates to animals represents and colours the way they relate to others. Adam tells himself he has dominion over the animals, but in God’s curse on Eve, she’s been told her husband will have dominion over her. Does that make her equal to the animals? This is just one reason she has a keen interest in how he treats them.

Further, they have to wonder about God’s purpose in creating themselves and the animals (which, for this work, I’m imagining He did; see my previous post on working with incredible premises). If God is willing for them to dispatch with the animals so easily, what does this say about their own mortality?

It’s like Sirius Black said (somewhat ironically, given his later treatment of his own house-elf) in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, ‘If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.’

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.

 

Playing God

This Week’s Bit of String: Tidying up the building materials

Once when my son was about six years old, I looked in on him during his evening tidy-up to see him gloomily tossing his Lego into their bucket, punctuating their impact with sighs. ‘What’s up?’ I asked.

‘Oh, I’m just…angry at God.’

He explained his grievance to me: ‘While we were eating dinner, I asked God really nicely if he would please tidy up my room for me.’ Another sigh. ‘But He didn’t.’

I’d seen him in a similar predicament with the magic wand he’d received for his birthday. And when he was a toddler, just learning his manners, there were those agonised epiphanies that saying please—‘the magic word’—won’t get you extra sweets or a later bedtime.

So it didn’t seem the time to put God’s existence under review, anymore than I would tell him there’s no such thing as magic. ‘Sorry, mate. I don’t think He works that way; He likes to make sure we know how to do things for ourselves.’

Losing My (Bias Against) Religion

Religion—and, well, not relying too exclusively on it—has enmeshed itself into a few of my stories. In Artefacts, the first novel I wrote, talking about God embarrasses the protagonist, ‘like talking about someone and suddenly realising they stood behind you.’

I feel that way, a bit, penning scenes with God in my current novel. As it’s Eve’s story, though, and her family’s, He plays a prominent role. I guess it’s the first time I’ve written about a recognisable figure, an entity Who might (who knows?) actually exist. That changes things, doesn’t it?

Carvings of God on His throne
Above the door at Notre Dame Cathedral. Can omnipotence and love really go hand in hand?

Last week I wrote about reimagining the first humans in the Bible, as well as the angels, trying to de-stigmatise as far as possible. These days, at least in our fast-paced, ‘enlightened’ society, it seems God too has become somewhat stigmatised, the focus of blame and skepticism rather than adoration. I don’t want to get caught up in that, even while sympathising with Eve and other characters He punished.

One has to wonder, if God does exist, and is by definition omnipotent and eternal, do all our pleas and tirades sound to Him like a child not wanting to pick up his own toys? I’m trying not to be restricted by pro-human bias in my view.

He’s Got the Look

So far I’ve not gone into great detail about God’s appearance. That’s not the done thing, is it? In our art we tend to come at physical description obliquely, if at all. Likewise with my re-invented angels, apart from the odd mention of their scales, wings, and fire. The humans in the story accept these beings and have no reason to overtly describe them.

Flaming orange sunrise over a hilltop
Like this, maybe. I’m just throwing around ideas here.

There’s mention of God’s immense size, and lack of clear outline. I mean, He’s God. We can be justified in thinking he has humanoid aspects (or commonly manifests them), because He does say He’s made people in His image. But I don’t think He’s just a muscly older man with a flowing white beard, the way Michelangelo depicted Him.

For one thing, He’s not going to have a corporeal body. He’s energy, and why He would choose to generally have a human form, I don’t know. I suppose it has its uses, a certain organisation and compactness. But in my work there’s a glow to Him and a deep, shifting substance that defies boundary. His eyes can turn into oceans, His smile into sunrise.

The King (of King)’s Speech

What I have God say in the book is far more important than how He looks. And I haven’t a whole lot of source material to base it on. I’m not on board with the whole divine scriptures idea. Sorry, I’m a writer myself. I know how easy it is to make stuff up and then it feels like canon in my mind. That doesn’t mean it is. That’s possibly my human bias talking, but for the purposes of this project, I’m going with it.

I’m drawing the line at accepting God’s actual words as relayed in Genesis—but weeding out ideas that are merely imputed to Him.

For example, when He punishes Cain for killing Abel, He says Cain is exiled and will lose his knack for growing crops. He never says Cain is banished from His presence (that would be admitting some limitation to His power). It’s Cain who moans that he’ll be out of God’s sight, and then the narrative picks it up.

Granted, He issues curses at key moments, but He doesn’t just pronounce judgment. He questions those involved, giving them a chance to explain themselves or at least ‘fess up—all the while opening Himself to even more disappointment as they flounder around pretending they didn’t do that thing they really weren’t supposed to do.

He strikes me as part Albus Dumbledore, part Atticus Finch, giving people space and a bit of prodding to see if they’ll figure things out for themselves. Here, Eve’s daughter Ana recounts to Cain how God encouraged her to start her own family, while admitting she too would carry her mother’s curse.

So I told Him: “I think You are a brutal Master.”’
Cain gave me one of his rare, full-on looks, allowing me to see the Mark. ‘Then what?’
‘He said, “Well, at least you believe I’m your Master.”
“What choice do I have?” I asked. ‘You gave my parents life out of dust and bone.’
“You have every choice, Ana. You and all your future children and grandchildren, you have a choice.” And His glow seemed to dim slightly. I almost felt sorry for him.

After all, I feel a certain sympathy with Him, too. Creating people, letting them bumble off on their way doing what they like, forcing You to spring up obstacles in their path to slow them down and get them to look about themselves for once…Ahem. Yes. Perhaps God and us writers have a thing or two in common. What do you think?

 

The Borders of Sympathy

This week’s bit of string: That person you disagree with, maybe even deplore: What’s their story?

Quite rightfully, we’re hearing a lot now about tolerance and empathy. It’s not easy to strive for these things. One may well deplore people from the opposing political camp. As I watch events unfold, I sympathise with people in the LGBT community or in immigrant populations and other minorities, who fear losing their rights. However, seeing footage of protesters cheering in LA while burning an effigy of the new President-Elect and holding signs saying, ‘We want an inclusive America—’ that gives me some pause. I don’t think of effigies as being inclusive. Can’t we muster up some sympathy for the other side?

I like to think that we writers are in the sympathy-mustering business. We’re the ones who witness a street scene, walk away heavier under the burdens of every single person involved, then transfer that burden into a story. Just last week I walked past a multigenerational family having a cup of tea outside a cafe. The mother was berating a small boy, shouting, ‘You’re stressing Granny out! Remember what happens then? Do you want Granny to have an accident?’ It was hard not to feel sorry for the Granny whose difficulties were being broadcast to half the street, the small boy who was probably rather confused at being blamed for his grandmother’s issues, and even the shouting mum, with her straggly peroxide hair and haggard eyes, who looked pretty stressed herself.

Abandoned high-heeled shoes on front garden wall in Cheltenham
Like these shoes I spotted walking to the Cheltenham Literature Festival. What miles had they walked?

Naturally, I didn’t agree with how the situation was handled. Nor do I agree with people supporting a candidate who mocks prisoners of war and disabled persons, and boasts about forcing himself on women. But I ask myself why they’re handling things this way, and my mind is whisked down a different path. I believe writing is the process of planting yourself and your reader sometimes quite mercilessly in someone else’s shoes.

Rebecca Mead wrote an exceptional New Yorker article a couple years ago, encouraging readers not to shy away from characters different from themselves. “To reject any work because we feel that it does not reflect us in a shape that we can easily recognize—because it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy—is our own failure.”

Still, people don’t always want to acknowledge that stupid or unpleasant acts have motivations. They might feel victimised by the very people who commit those acts. How do we elicit sympathy for our characters, whoever they may be?

First, let’s consider the difference between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy can be defined as a tendency to feel alike, whereas the definition of empathy goes so far as to ‘vicariously experienc[e] the feelings’ of others (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary). Maybe empathy is what we should strive for as writers. Instead of searching for sympathetic characters to portray (those with similarities to potential readers), we can create empathetic characters—depicting a diverse range of people so realistically that readers can’t help but feel the story.

I think the key here to reveal our characters’ pain. Most of us, when we see another human being suffer, will recognise that. That was my experience working in health and social care. I’d go about doing my job for all sorts of people who weren’t always sympathetic types. Some made racist or sexist remarks, or were unkind to their families. But when they were afraid or in pain, and said things like, ‘I wish my mum was here,’ the differences fell away and I was fighting back empathetic tears.

It’s not just bits of string we gather as writers; sometimes we feel with particular strength the heavy ropes of understanding that bind us to the rest of humanity.

Many of us writers want to aide the voiceless through our work. But it’s not just the blameless who feel voiceless. After all, if pain is what most draws our sympathy—what’s more painful than guilt? In his epic Les Miserables, Victor Hugo wrote not just about the heroic Jean Valjean, but also about an abandoned unwed mother, and even delved into the background of the brutally strict Javert. By exposing each character’s background, he made all of them sympathetic, allowed none to stay voiceless, and more fully exposed the effects of poverty and oppression.

In my own work, I’ve given voice to a young Haitian earthquake survivor, a mother who’s left her family to live with her girlfriend, an Evangelical teacher desperate to convey his faith to his students, and so many others. (See more about my work here.) Sometimes, my characters hurt each other, and they pay the consequences as the plot advances. I can’t protect them even when I wish I could, but I ache on their behalf, no matter what wrongs they’ve done, because I know their story. By conveying that story, hopefully I pass that empathy on to my readers as well.

Abandoned mill building with waterfall
Abandoned mill in my hometown.

So, what’s the background of the people who aligned themselves with the KKK-endorsed presidential candidate? David Wong has written a very insightful, if saddening, article for Cracked about what many Trump voters, often from depressed rural areas, have gone through. As it happens, my stories often take place in similar depressed rural areas. And it’s worth remembering that people can feel voiceless or victimised, even when they’re shouting at the top of their lungs and someone else might be cowering in fear at their feet.

I’m not saying we don’t hold people accountable for how they vote, just as we hold politicians accountable for how they respond to the vote. And you may be feeling so frightened, so scarred by what’s happened in your own life, that you don’t wish to look at the horrors in anyone else’s. But if you can find the strength, let’s not tune in just at the end of their story; let’s walk the full miles with them. After all, these are people who were desperate enough to elect a man most accurately described on Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe as ‘a sort of guinea pig staring at you through the porthole on a washing machine.’

Doesn’t it almost make you feel sorry for them?