One Year Wiser?

This Week’s Bit of String: The refusal to shovel

In the UK people don’t really understand about snow. How heavy it can be, layer on layer of it, and how long it can take in, say, 15 F/ -9.4 C when you’re shovelling several inches off your driveway. And then several more.

Growing up, we were fortunate to have a relatively short driveway (by American rural standards, if not by British ones) but shovelling was still a full-family effort.

In theory.

My youngest sister once refused to even do fifteen minutes of shovelling. My parents got her out into the garage, but she stood there for quite some time with no coat, shivering and scowling and resisting the shovel leaning on the garage wall right next to her.

‘You’d be better off getting your fifteen minutes done and then you can just go back inside,’ I suggested.

Average December day in New England: several inches of snow at the abandoned mill.
That’s what I’m talkin’ about.

‘I don’t care,’ she huffed. She must have been thirteen or fourteen, which most of us may remember is a very principled age.

I believe we finished the shovelling without her, in that instance. Looking back, I admire for her for sticking it out, however close she might have come to hypothermia.

As a species, we’re supposed to have a good instinct for self-preservation. But there are a few instances where our principles override our knack for survival. Suicide bombers and kamikaze pilots. As a collective group, the overriding is even harder to counteract, since our instincts don’t work as a herd, or on longterm effects. There doesn’t seem to be an instinct that tells us not to dump hazardous chemicals into the water or air, or even stops us from voting for those that allow it.

Or perhaps there are principles—such as the You’re Not the Boss of Me! principle—which, shall we say, trump those instincts.

A year ago we voted in precisely those types of people. I’m sure a lot of us are reflecting back to Election Day 2016, and probably many feel wistful, wishing it had turned out otherwise. Some from both sides, I imagine, feel smug, that the Trump presidency has turned out as well/ badly as they might have foreseen.

I look back and feel disappointed, not because of who’s president, but because so little has changed. I feel like JK Simmons’ character at the end of the Coen brothers’ film Burn After Reading: ‘I guess we learned not to do it again…I’m f***ed if I know what we did!’

What Did We Learn Here?

Last year’s election has been analysed by many, but the conclusions seem to be exactly what you’d expect from the party doing the analysing. There are no surprises. Those of us who followed the election closely can’t be genuinely shocked by revelations of cosiness and possible collusion. Supporters of the rival Democratic candidates continue to see Bernie/ Hillary as totally out of touch and divisive. Certain Republicans, likewise, blame the Bushes and other primary candidates for diluting support of more capable runners.

Two tufty, black-eyed guinea pigs.
Our guinea pigs. We’ll call them Alternative Squirrels for our purposes here.

And any revelations produced by one group to support their cause have been refuted and ignored—not necessarily in that order—by everyone else. Cheeseburger emojis are to Fox News what squirrels were to the dogs in UP.

The Facebook Factor

I didn’t unfriend anyone on Facebook in the wake of the election. Big of me, wasn’t it? But I did unfollow someone for whom I felt fondness, just not enough to tolerate their ‘God is now rewarding us for suffering through the horrors of Obama’ posts. (There are plenty of conservative-leaning people I still follow; it was the frequency and ferocity of this one person’s posts informing my decision at that time.)

I meant to re-follow this ‘friend’ so I could keep up with his welfare and his family, maybe even to hear him out once the furor had died down. Then I forgot. I fear that in doing so, I was part of the wider problem of divisiveness, because I became the sort of person who casts someone aside and forgets them over a mere issue of principle.

Both Sides

Rather hypocritical of me, considering that my inaugural post, also about a year ago, focused on empathy and looking past political views to recognise each other’s humanity. A lot of us were appalled when the President said, after the terrorist attack by a white supremacist in Charlottesville, that there were ‘good people’ among the protesting nationalists, and that violence was committed by ‘both sides.’

Wikipedia entry on Voting Rights: 'Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation of tacos.'
Then sometimes when you probe an issue, you just find tacos.

And yet shouldn’t we keep probing both sides? Surely even those who subscribe to terrible beliefs have a few good points to them? Does the boundary between good people who do the occasional bad thing and bad people who do the occasional good thing fall strictly on political lines? We’re writers, readers, feelers and thinkers. We mustn’t allow our principles to restrict our views.

I have not found the strength to probe these questions as deeply as I intended. I suppose if the election had gone the other way it might have been less daunting. Easier to conduct an autopsy, perhaps, than examine a very belligerent patient.

Next Steps

But probing of a sort continues. My reading material falling on the anniversary of the election and on Remembrance Day is Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy, which imagines a future world of corpocracies and blind materialism that gets me wondering how truly sustainable my lifestyle is. I’m also reading Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, because as I wrote when I bought the book from Ms. Eddo-Lodge at Cheltenham Literature Festival, when someone feels they’re not being heard, I want to listen.

Clearly, there are still all manner of people I need to at least try listening to. And I’ve got some good examples to follow. Ms. Eddo-Lodge interviewed British nationalist/ supremacist Nick Griffin as part of her work for this book. See also Gary Younge interviewing Richard Spencer. These journalists have shown great courage in trying to understand an opposing side that threatens them a lot more than it does me.

Have you found it in yourself to talk with people from ‘the other side?’ Has anything from this last year surprised you about your own ‘side?’ These days it seems we’re all out in the freezing cold—but those of us wielding the shovels to clear things up will stay a lot warmer than those who refuse. Maybe we should find out what drives that stubbornness.

A New Literary Era

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Characteristics

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

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

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

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

Examples

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

Also, spoilers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Stories Worth Translating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women in Translation

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

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

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

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

Translation Pre-Requisites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy explorations, everyone!

Leading While Female

This Week’s Bit of String: A Question for the Prime Minister

The interviewer narrowed her eyes studiously, and barely moved her mouth as she asked the question, conveying a sense that this high-stakes question was just between girls. ‘What’s the naughtiest thing you’ve ever done?’ (Video here.)

In the midst of general cheering as Conservative leader Theresa May moved one interview further toward a sub-optimal election performance, I squirmed at the question. I don’t know how I’d answer it, as a ‘normal’ person. If I were the Prime Minister, I would not expect it. What bearing does it have on defending the nation from terrorists, reviving the economy, negotiating Brexit?

I doubt anyone’s ever asked the masses of male politicians about the naughtiest thing they’ve ever done.

I don’t agree with Mrs. May’s government or party. Sharing a gender does not necessitate political affinity. But as a writer I advocate, and try to practise, empathy for any other person, female or male, public figure or not, and as a feminist, I believe we should push for empowerment of every woman, regardless of her political affiliation.

Many of us notice more blatant forms of sexism against women leaders. Donald Trump’s remarks about rival presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, for example, or the threats made against female game writers. But sometimes it takes slightly more subtle forms. What are the main forms of verbal sexism women encounter in leadership roles, and how might they be more covertly manifested?

Are You a Good Witch, or a Bad Witch?

To me, the question asked of Theresa May and the subsequent backlash that apparently the leader of the country isn’t ‘naughty’ enough, reflected a Madonna-whore complex in society. If women can’t be utterly perfect, they must be objects of scorn. Or perhaps to a portion of men, women are mere sexual objects beneath it all, and these men justify the idea by portraying women as bad or dirty.

A Woman’s Place
Field of wheat while green in spring
Future wheatfield. I can’t blame the Prime Minister for wanting to run through it.

Then of course there’s the grumbling about who’s going to make men’s sandwiches and iron their shirts if women are busy doing politics. Hillary Clinton faced such heckling remarks during various campaigns.

I’ve seen men default to their idea of women as housekeepers. When I worked at a sizeable secondary school, the headteacher happened by the SEN rooms and encountered two of our specialist teaching assistants catching up between student appointments. ‘Since you’re not busy,’ he joked, ‘I’m sure the toilets need cleaning.’

Not something he’d say if he found a couple of male staff bantering in the corridor.

The S-Word

A Year Ten student once complained to me about a meeting being cancelled when our SEN Coordinator was on sick leave: ‘We couldn’t have it ‘cause Miss wasn’t in. That slut.’

My supervisor’s attendance had nothing to do with her sex life. But most insults for women do. JK Rowling recently Tweeted against the prevalent method of sexualising a woman the second she disagrees. ‘Every woman I know who has dared express an opinion publicly has endured this kind of abuse at least once,’ she noted.

Although there have been efforts by feminists to remove the sting from these insults by embracing sexuality, continuously high rates of sexual abuse and harassment mean they are triggers to a huge portion of women in some way. And you don’t get that kind of demeaning language about men, because it doesn’t really exist.

Those Women and Their Damn Feelings

In last week’s U.S. Senate hearings investigating Russian interference, new Senator Kamala Harris questioned Attorney General Jeff Sessions persistently about his refusal to answer. Later a male commentator—with equal persistence—called her hysterical. To me, her voice was level, her facial expression calm, if disappointed. I saw no emotional imbalance (although the political situation in America can understandably rile people of any sex or party).

Stencilled graffiti of a vulture atop a scribbled tree, the Conservative party symbol.
Election graffiti 2017. Mrs. May’s appearance is sometimes likened to a vulture, a type of critique I’m not happy to participate in.

Women’s comments, no matter how they’re delivered, can be easily dismissed as overwrought nonsense. When I Googled the story about JK Rowling’s Tweets, one headline read: ‘JK Rowling Goes Off on Twitter…’ The phrase going off on one indicates an overreaction. So Yahoo’s writers and editors were, however subtly, encouraging readers to ignore Ms. Rowling’s actual argument.

Men’s impulses are often a societal and even legal excuse for everything from ‘locker room talk’ to rape. Women’s feelings, apparently, provoke ridicule and disqualify them from leadership.

Clothes Make the Woman

Any public figure should expect criticism for how they look and dress. Ed Milliband eating a bacon sandwich, Barack Obama’s jeans, Trump’s ties. But while men get mocked in extraordinary moments, women are assessed for their clothing, it seems, in every appearance. Theresa May’s shoes are always drawing comment.

Of course, she may like that. She likes her shoes. Bryce Dallas Howard could run through Jurassic World in heels, and there’s no reason a prime minister shouldn’t have them. But when Mrs. May claims her shoes actually inspired another woman to get into politics? I confess it seemed a petty reason to me.

Then again, if this anecdote is true, and the woman made that comment to Theresa May in Whitehall—she’d have faced all the above challenges, and more, to get there. Either she really loved the Prime Minister’s shoes, or there’s a lot more sustaining her.

So whether they’re Tories or Green, in stilettos or trainers, let’s eschew these subtle disparagements and encourage fair and intellectual discourse about our politicians. Particularly about female ones—because who else can they count on for that?

Liberal Arts: Where Do All the Bleeding Hearts Go?

This Week’s Bit of String: Crosses made of sliced cheese

For Easter when I was in kindergarten, my mother cut slices of processed cheese and bologna into crosses, chicks, and egg shapes to share with my class. The school found this contribution offensive. I remember her crying over it, as she hung up laundry. We lived in a very small, seemingly homogenous New England town, but it couldn’t accommodate her humble gesture of religious expression.

As writers, we hate feeling voiceless, we hate for minorities to feel voiceless, and we should hate for religious communities to feel voiceless. I’m not endorsing the narrative of the American ‘War on Christianity.’ There’s no comparison to what a lot of BAME or LGBT people have suffered. But have you noticed a dearth of well-rounded religious characters in literature? Could this absence be feeding the fear we ‘liberals’ have of conservatives? Could it be curtailing our empathy?

Perpetuating Literary Stereotypes
Notre Dame Cathedral
Notre Dame Cathedral, October 2015

I’d like to see characters like my mother in literature. Someone with unparalleled patience, raising the four children she gave birth to in five years, and working for over two decades with special needs students, often at least sixty hours a week—while dutifully living out beliefs some might view as intolerant. Someone who believes abortion is murder but who was devastated by Christian leaders’ support of a racist President who condoned sexual assault.

Instead, it feels as if religious characters in fiction are generally incarnations of Archdeacon Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Hugo’s villain, tormented by hidden lusts, was probably a shocking revelation at the time. I’m not sure the prototype still is. In films and books, do we not at this point expect the Republicans and evangelicals to be baddies?

Admittedly, there have been appalling religious figures throughout history. One can understand the rage against clergy in, for example, Irish fiction such as The Glorious Heresies, or The Secret Scriptures. And in America especially, Christian culture, perhaps partly out of a sense it’s not welcome in the mainstream, has isolated itself to produce its own books on its own presses.

This isolation becomes cyclic. The church is the kid on the playground who has to keep his clothes clean, so he doesn’t join in football. The other kids assume he doesn’t want to play anyway—especially if he tells them they’re getting too dirty—and he resents them carrying on without him, and the gulf widens. So mainstream literature and heavily conservative, Christian literature may seem to prefer the separation. But if we consider ourselves liberal, should we ignore a whole subset of our culture?

Studies on Liberalism Versus Conservatism

Before justifying the alienation by saying Republicans are ignorant, are overly attached to their beliefs, and probably hate us too much to engage, consider these intriguing studies.

Research shows that conservative minds are more attuned to fear. Is this a cause or a symptom of conservatism? Scientific American describes how mounting scientific evidence of conservative risk awareness could explain their stereotypical attachment to rules and even nationalism.

St. Cyr's Church on Stroudwater Canal
St. Cyr’s Church on Stroudwater Canal, Palm Sunday 2017

It also explains their tendency toward idea-driven storytelling. While some conservative commentators like this one on The American Conservative website remind their fellows that using literature to mould public morals ‘leads to art becoming a mere tool, a means to an end, rather than an end in itself,’ a group will find that irrelevant when they perceive themselves under threat. Republicans (who got eighty percent of evangelical support in the presidential election) are completely in control of the American government, but fundamentalist Christians believe in Heaven and Hell. The majority of people they meet are eternally damned. If they have any compassion, they’ll try and save them with everything they do, every word they write. How could they care about trivial things like character development and artistic expression?

Here’s another surprise from a wonderful study described in The Guardian, in which literature professors researched thousands of Goodreads profiles and found over four hundred books which conservative and liberal readers frequently liked in common. Encouraging, but when they looked at the reviews, they found conservative readers were ‘more generous’ and used ‘less negative or hateful language’ than many of the liberal reviewers. We liberals can be snobby and cynical—who would have thought?

In Twitter discussion, science fiction writer Grace Crandall observes that we tend to detect biases against us: liberals see conservative bias, while conservatives see liberal bias. We’d all rather be wronged than in the wrong. But we have to rise above that as artists, and try to understand each other, as she suggests.

What is Conservatism, Really?
Church and phone booth
Juxtaposition in Dursley, Christmas 2016

Everyone’s conservative about some things, and liberal about others. We all have things we don’t want to change, and things we seek to explore and improve. Micah Mattix, in the American Conservative article, reminds us genuine conservatism is ‘deeper than a political orientation; it is a temperament, one that looks to the past with reverence and the future with trepidation, and which believes that human nature is not easily changed or improved.’ Skepticism of contemporary culture is not exclusive to Republican-leaning authors.

Indeed, when we write we should examine any stereotype, even the idea that Republicans are always grouchy old white men. We write to conquer fear, perhaps our own fear of being voiceless, and it’s always worth finding characters to give voice to. There are Republicans and/ or evangelicals who strive valiantly to live up to their own standards, even if these standards manifest themselves in ways that look strange to us. In my book Artefacts, two of the protagonists are Christians, trying to establish friendships outside the church despite being convinced their acquaintances are hellbound. Religious characters don’t always have to be so dramatic; I liked the pastor and the churchgoing protagonist in Richard Russo’s Empire Falls. They were portrayed as normal people, with normal family and livelihood struggles, who happened to have a bit of faith. That’s incredibly rare in a current book, and why should it be? We’re writers. We can take on anything.

Writers with Day Jobs, Part 1: What I’m Doing Here

This Week’s Bit of String: Teeth in the mail

A nice lady from the dentist’s office up the street stops in at our post office almost daily, smiling in her spring-green scrubs. She requires certificates of posting for pre-paid parcels of dental samples. Am I sending people’s teeth? Gum tissue? I’ve posted a crocodile’s foot for someone before, but that’s another story.

Today we chatted and I mentioned that I’d had a couple stories published. Her eyes widened behind her glasses. ‘Fantastic! But what are you doing HERE?’

Have you encountered this misconception that writers belong in ivory towers where we do nothing but create? Lovely as it sounds, we writerly folk know it’s not feasible.

The primary answer to what I’m doing working in a post office at the back of an ailing convenience store is, of course: earning money. But there’s more to it.

For most of us writers, maintaining our finances entails more than ‘just’ wringing our hearts and brains out onto a page. (Seriously, isn’t that what it feels like sometimes?) I’ve worked in customer service, education, catering, and healthcare. Each has unleashed stampedes of What Ifs in my mind, but depending on the job, I’m sometimes too exhausted to corral them into anything useful.

Anti-urinating notice in post office window
In the window of my work. Couldn’t make this up.

Incorporating work experiences into fiction is essential, however, to create a range of meaningful pieces. There’s increasing concern about literary fiction’s underrepresentation of, and consequent lack of appeal to, working class people. Many established authors write what they know; often featuring academics or artists and writers. Those of us stuck in jobs further toward the bottom of society’s ladder have, in that case, a duty to represent it.

What am I doing here? Collecting ground intelligence that will ultimately infiltrate the upper echelons of literature.

We have other moral obligations as writers. Our talents involve empathy and eloquence, which, when paired together, hopefully add up to diplomacy: useful skills in any profession. An ability to assess others’ needs and to thoughtfully address them is as important whether assisting elderly patients to the toilet, supporting SEN students in lessons, or helping a man close his deceased parent’s pension account.

What am I doing here? Possibly doing you a favour by weighing my responses more carefully than others would.

Can you tell I’ve been toiling over job applications lately? I’m getting good at talking myself up. But as I wrote before about writers’ potential shortcomings as parents, I wonder too if there are drawbacks to having us on a payroll. Apart from the risk that I’ll savage versions of tricky clients and employers in my stories, I might be preoccupied now and then. It’s hard to shut down the characters and plot twists in our minds. Writers in day jobs have to compartmentalise. We want occupations we don’t have to take home with us.

View of sunburst and hills
A scenic walking commute is an ideal bridge between the day job and the writing life.

But I don’t always compartmentalise my writing. It seems silly to lock ideas in a mental box to be opened only during lunchtime, because I might scrawl a few lines between customers. This has been one of the only jobs in which I’ve managed to do so, and I am utterly unrepentant.

What am I doing here? Occasionally engaging in an activity outside the job description.

I’m not the first to write while I work. Here’s a fun round-up of famous writers and their jobs, in which we learn that James Joyce could sing, and Kafka worked at an ‘industrial injury institute—’does that sound Kafkaesque, or what? Maybe I should emulate Bram Stoker and kiss up to someone who can be my wealthy patron.

(Note: The above article mainly features men. I’ll definitely be revisiting the topic to explore potential added complications for women writers, so do share any thoughts in anticipation of that topic!)

Would these writers have had as much to write about without their day jobs? My work experience colours much of my writing. In The Wrong Ten Seconds, for example, one protagonist works in a supermarket on a zero-hours contract, while another works in a nursing home.

‘The corridor lights were dimmed as per management orders, to save on electricity. With its expectant hush and artificial-looking attempts to induce sleepiness, the nursing home at evening time reminded Lydia of an overnight flight. They were all barreling toward the same destination, a strangely relaxing thought.’

What am I doing here? Gathering string, weaving new story ideas, corralling the What Ifs, and plotting my next move.

Do your working and writing worlds sometimes collide? Have you found ways to make each complement the other?

Next week, Part 2: Work Balancing and Story Bribery

Please Don’t Torture the Characters

This Week’s Bit of String: Sandcastles full of tiny babies

My son liked building sandcastles when he was younger. Well, I’d build; he’d squish. The fun was heightened by me pretending to try and stop him stepping on the little castles. After many rounds of this, while Daddy of course reclined reading in the sunshine, I sometimes craved my own book and would tell our son to carry on without me.

So he would raise the stakes. ‘You don’t want me to crush this castle, do you?’ he might say. ‘It’s actually a hospital full of tiny babies. Quick, better stop me!’

It’s a bit like that with writing, isn’t it? We’ve got to keep the stakes up so readers stay engaged, and that requires storylines with danger and strife. When empathy is such an essential virtue in writers, how does that reconcile with the inescapable fact that we must engineer pain for our characters?

‘No puppet. No puppet. You’re the Puppet.’
Crushing sand castles
My mini Caliban Upon Setebos

First of all, it’s worth considering the writer’s relationship with the main character. Who’s really in control here? I think I speak for many writers when I say we don’t just invent a naive, flat, experience-less character and say to ourselves, ‘Aha, let’s inflict some horrors upon this person!’

Rather, a character usually appears in our minds already lugging several tonnes of baggage and clearly heading uphill. I’ve had cases where I’d like the character to take an easier path, but they insist otherwise. This happens, I suppose, because I often get the story idea first, in the form of a What If This Happened imaginary spree, and then the character evolves from the subsequent What Sort of Person Would Do It ruminations.

For example, I recently closeted myself away to edit The Wrong Ten Seconds. The idea behind it: What if the rare instant a person happened to do a bad thing was caught on viral video? The character materialising with a need for this story to be told doesn’t have an easy life. He’s practically at breaking point when the story begins. As the girl who films and shares the video comments:

‘I didn’t mean to mess everything up.’
‘They already were messed up,’ Rittell told her. ‘You made everyone see it.’

The Greater Good

I’ve mentioned before, my inspiration for this novel comes from an event that made news several years ago, so maybe that exonerates me for how the plot thickens. Art imitates life. We don’t write about people with perfect lives, because they don’t exist. Besides, would you want to read that? Even villains of great books come into the plot already scarred and damaged (Tom Riddle, anyone?)

When we write about excruciating humiliations, heart-rending loss, or gnawing guilt, we use it all to the greater good. Our unfortunate characters expose flaws in society that require attention, and hopefully they also show how these can be overcome. I like this challenge from The Editor’s Blog: ‘Give you characters weaknesses and flaws and opposition so tough that the only way they can get through is to become someone new—or become the man or woman they’d always been but had never had call to reveal.’

That explains the result of my Twitter poll this week. I asked how writers feel when their characters have to suffer. The most popular option, with 33% of the votes, was ‘A secret, excited twinge.’ Understandable; climactic conflict draws us in as readers and writers alike. Not far behind in the results, with 27% each of the vote, were ‘Agonising heartbreak’ and ‘Whatever. Can’t be helped.’ 13% said they feel malicious glee.

When one of my characters suffer a loss or rejection, I listen to sad songs and channel the times I’ve experienced the same. I’m building empathy with my star-crossed hero or heroine, and in doing so, building it with readers. The pain we create isn’t meant to tear us apart inside, but to bind us to each other. After all, how many characters have you loved that didn’t carry terrible heartache with them?

Let There Be Dark

This week’s bit of string: Fourteenth century ploughing techniques

Stories are like a box of chocolates; some of us can’t resist the dark ones. I don’t mean dark as in using horror elements, but rather the darker aspects of real life, from brutal struggles and current events.

I sometimes fear that writing ‘dark’ stories may put off readers who seek literary escapism. How do we justify putting serious issues into our work?

Dark stories need tough heroes/heroines to blaze through them. After all, fiction is only as sad as its characters, just as life is only as sad as we feel.

Utilising Juxtaposition

There are so many elements to a story: plot, setting, characters, tone, dialogue… And there can be different degrees of darkness to each element. For example, Catch-22 has a horrific wartime plot, but the tone is humourous. Cruel deeds may unfold against a bright summer setting, as in L’Etranger (one of the bleakest books I’ve ever read).

We don’t use these contrasts to dilute the message. Rather, the idea is to illuminate and emphasise it. Interweaving tragedy with comedy can sharpen it with the shock of the unexpected.

Church steeple glowing at the end of a dark alley
I don’t think this church steeple would have looked nearly as impressive if I hadn’t approached it through an abandoned dark alley.

We can create characters that suffer terribly, but perhaps they have a sense of humour about it. We all know people like that in real life.

My first published story, ‘The Meek Inherit,’ portrayed a small snapshot of Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake. But I used a fiercely imaginative, independent Haitian girl’s point of view, which imbued it with a sense of hope. Through her, I could bring attention to Haiti’s misfortunes, but also to the resourcefulness of its people. ‘How dull reading would be,’ Robert Burdock commented in his review, ‘if every story had a Disney ending.’

Instigating Change

After I read my story The Apocalypse Alphabet at Stroud Short Stories’ event recently, a couple of very talented writers spoke to me afterwards and described the story as harrowing. I began to apologise, but they said, ‘No, no, it’s important to be harrowed sometimes. If that’s a word!’

Harrowed is a word, as it turns out. The word harrow comes from a medieval Dutch word for rake, and a harrow, thusly, is a spiky tool that pulverises soil before planting. A painful process, no doubt—which then contributes to yielding useful crops.

Good fiction has the power to shake us up, jolt us awake, and change our habits. I can think of two books I’ve read in recent years that have altered my thought patterns. Marina Lewycka’s novel Two Caravans honestly and wittily brings attention to the plight of migrant workers in the UK, including some working under dreadful conditions at a chicken packaging plant. Since reading this novel, I only use free-range chicken products, because it made me realise: companies that mistreat animals for profit will most likely mistreat human workers, as well.

The second book was James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain. This tormented, semi-autobiographical book about an adolescent boy desperate to win his religious father’s approval honed my awareness about the legacy of slavery for generation after generation of African Americans. I was struck by the fact that Baldwin’s grandmother had been a slave, and her first children had been taken from her and sold. His writing made me consider the devastating impact this would have on a person’s ability to love and form familial bonds later on—and this would then impact her children, and their children, and so forth.

Lamppost illuminated in wooded park
Let there be dark, that the light may show up against it. Stratford Park, Stroud

It’s not easy to be shown the dark underbelly of the bloated, overfed privilege some of us enjoy. But I believe we can learn from it. And fiction is particularly placed to do that, because it opens up our imaginations. Imagination doesn’t merely lead to escapism, it can lead to empathy as well, which as I’ve previously discussed, is the key to changing the world.

So, what books have harrowed you to the point of growing new crops, so to speak? How much dark reality do you find acceptable in a story?  Personally, I’m a realist. I like any happy endings to come out of a recognisable version of the world. I love Margaret Atwood’s novel The Blind Assassin, in which a man tells his mistress a tale with various dark twists involving slavery and sacrifice, but sets it against a dazzling background of an ancient city on a distant planet.

His lover whispers, ‘”Why are you telling me such a sad story?”’

‘”I tell you the stories I’m good at,” he says. “Also the ones you’ll believe. You wouldn’t believe sweet nothings, would you?”’

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?