Literary Valentines

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

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

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

Local window art for Valentine’s Day

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

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

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

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

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

Possession by A. S. Byatt

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

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

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

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

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

Maddaddam by Margaret Atwood

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

Coming home

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

Prayers for Rain by Dennis Lehane

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

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

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

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

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

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

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

Affectionate chair, Cheltenham Street Art Festival, 2019

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

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

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

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

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

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

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

A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

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

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

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

In the End

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grand Finale

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

Which end of this chambered nautilus is the finish?

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

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

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

Personal Favourites, aka Here Be Spoilers

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

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

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

When Will You Make an End?

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

Letting the sun go down on some promising growth

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

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

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

What are some of your favourite endings and last lines?

Keeping Warm

This Week’s Bit of String: Fruit cocktail upstairs

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

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

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

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

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

Warm-Up Writing

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

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

Let it blaze

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

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

Turning Up the Heat

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

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

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

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

The beauty of frosted thorns

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

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

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

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

Choosing a Bubble

This Week’s Piece of String: Adolescents in a Hospital Ward, 1993

What’s the most diverse group of people you’ve ever been part of? Not just racially or politically, but in terms of experience and beliefs. For me it was hospitalisation when I was 12, in a unit later shut down after a surprise inspection. It wasn’t a nice place, but I quickly learned to like the people I was with.

We were aged 12 to 17, representing all colours, with heritage from Puerto Rico, Greece, and Jamaica. There were teens left there by the state for over a year. Runaways brought in from the street, kids stopping off on their way to longer detention, and private school students whose rich parents didn’t know how to handle them.

One boy, a few months younger than I was, had stolen a gun from Walmart. One girl’s entire family were in detox. There was a virulently anti-racist boy who suffered from muscular dystrophy, a junior KKK member, and a powerful African-American girl who didn’t hesitate to enlighten him. My roommate loved vinegar, Aerosmith, and her little foster brother who had spina bifida.

This puzzle fit together especially well thanks to its oddly shaped pieces…Must get my cheesiest metaphors out of the way before actually writing the next book.

We kept count of the times we heard The Bodyguard soundtrack on the radio (“Run to You:” 9 times in 2 weeks), and lived for the pizza bagels we were given on Friday nights. We were united against tyrannical psychiatrists and shared affection for the handful of kindlier workers. We jostled for shaving slots, during the one daily hour when we could access “sharps.” Through major personal crises, we cared for each other, and accepted our quirks.

In the midst of a new global crisis, as the government allows us to form “bubbles” of safety, I fear this will result in further entrenching us in homogenous opinions. Every book or TV series I love (and that seem to particularly resonate with readers and audiences) has a motley, diverse cast who beat the odds to save the day. And that’s how my next writing project will be, even if real life isn’t turning out that way.

Weirdos Assemble!

From The Baby-Sitters Club to last year’s joint Booker Prize winner Girl, Woman, Other, from Star Trek to The Good Place, our hallmarks of fiction showcase diversity. There’s always room to include more ethnicities and sexualities, but it’s also important to celebrate different personalities.

I love how Brooklyn 99 features not just multiple people of colour, but also two characters who are particularly emotionally guarded. Guardians of the Galaxy could be a descendant of Catch-22, in which a group of people with various bizarre passions and tendencies are thrown together to fight a common enemy. Isn’t every iconic friendship a pairing of opposites, an appreciation of certain foibles the rest of the world has rejected?

Scout, Jem, Dill and Boo in To Kill a Mockingbird. The Scoobies in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Huckleberry Finn and his travel buddy Jim, the alliances Oskar builds in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Owen Meany and… you know, his best mate who tells his story.

My actual world.

You’ve probably got some favourite examples, too. As the pandemic shrinks our spheres of existence, makes every day similar to the next, and seems to embitter divisions, contemplating variance is refreshing. Have you found that?

Even now that activities are opening up, I still feel trapped in a waiting game. Wondering when I can see all my family in America. Waiting for results from competitions I’ve entered stories in, and still over a month from A-Levels Results Day, when our son finds out his grades and can then know which university he’s able to go to. In the COVID era, this also means that until his results come, we won’t know whether he’ll be able to visit home during university termtime or whether he’ll have to stay there in an allotted “bubble” of people on his course. So after emigrating from my whole family, I might now have to say goodbye to my child, my best buddy, for months on end… Yes, it’s high time to retreat into fiction and plan the next writing project.

World-Building

Starting a new novel is like designing your own plague-bubble. You’re not considering who to allow in the club, but who’s needed for the mission. I’m preparing to bring characters on board, I’m designing a set for them, and I’m coming up with plot points that ideally I’d like them to hit, but whatever, I trust their judgement.

Inspired partly by a hike past this unfinished mansion, which seemed to have a couple of young squatters…

It’s going to be somewhat apocalyptic; it’s more cathartic to imagine a better way through them than to imagine they don’t exist. Here’s my wishlist, because as writers we get to Write the Book We Want to See in the World:

  • A gothic-style setting, probably an abandoned manor house
  • A hint of the supernatural, because my last novel was about Eve and once you get to incorporate dragons and talking animals, there’s no going back.
  • Six main characters thrown together surprisingly, from very different walks of life
    • The enigmatic older caretakers of the estate
    • A spoiled but charming heir
    • His girlfriend, an immigrant who’s sacrificed parts of herself to assimilate
    • A recovering alcoholic who’d been homeless for months
    • A runaway nurse who just can’t take the front lines anymore
  • Certain personality traits to share around:
    • Someone obsessed with jigsaw puzzles, because that is one of my favourite Lockdown activities and why not use it?
    • Someone tuned in to religious iconography and symbols, you know, to heighten the drama
    • An element of uncertainty as to who’s REALLY in charge here. Which ones are the manipulators, which are the manipulated? Could they possibly, in some way, all be equally obligated to and fearful of each other? Does that mean they all need each other equally?
  • Art or music or poetry or exotic plants… the estate is bound to have some unique collections which could become significant. I’ll research obscure artefacts and see what I like.

What kind of reading and writing makes you feel better about the world? May your bubbles be safe but exciting, your books and your life studded with colourful characters.

Writers with Day Jobs, Part 4: What’d I Miss?

This Week’s Bit of String: Vicarious holidays to India

“You have an unusual name,” the customer on the phone says. I was typing notes on his call when he rang back and asked for me again. He explains, “We met someone with your name when we were travelling in India a while ago. Spent long, happy days watching the Ganges flow past and drinking hot chai. Was that you?”

“I’m afraid I’ve never been to India—yet.”

My colleagues nearby look up from their keyboards, distracted by my conversation.

An eye-opening experience. Street art in Derby

“Well, I highly recommend it. And you understand—I had to call back and check. I thought, wouldn’t it be a shame if I missed the chance to find out?”

I absolutely understood, and thanked him for briefly transporting me from the office. Then I got sucked back into doing three full-time jobs at once, then went home to a flurry of housework, and it wasn’t until my family and I had chatted through a whole supper that I remembered this respite.

How many times have I not bothered making a connection, seizing an idea, or picking at a bit of string, because my thoughts are corralled and cornered by job worries?

On My Way to Get to the Bottom of This

There’s not much I can do about my workload while at the office, but I’m learning to take back my life after walking out the heavy, ID-operated doors.

It’s like pausing a speedy hike to study the oxidation layers on an abandoned doorknob.

To this end, I plan to fit reading back into my schedule, and to jot down three random observations daily. Whether it’s a funny name I heard, an interesting fact I read, a street musician I passed, or one of my son’s jokes. (Example: “I hate when people ask me where I see myself in a year’s time. I mean, I don’t have 2020 vision.”)

Don’t think me a complete slacker for not doing these things before. I finished writing a novel recently, and I’m still funnelling every spare moment into editing. I stopped reading while consumed by my own plot. That’s totally allowed.

For the last month or two, I was obsessed with my characters. In that advanced project stage, you’re trapped in a whirlpool, suffocating under the current, and the only way to relieve the pressure is through a tiny trickle—word by word. But you can only switch the outlet on when you’re not in the office, when your family doesn’t need you, when the meals are cooked and served and cleaned up, and the laundry’s done.

I did what I set out to do, sharpening my focus and finishing The Gospel of Eve’s first draft. I wrote over 80,000 words in just 2 months. But it’s probably safe to broaden my mental reach again.

Engaged in a Battle for Our Very Soul

The unexpected call-back at work came just a couple days after I spent time an early Sunday morning reading cultural articles instead of catching up on political news or launching right into edits or filling out office forms.

I read the original Esquire article on Mr. Rogers from 1998, and an NPR article about 100-year-old Arabian Nights illustrations by Danish artist Kay Nielson. Both were a treat.

Letting the sun set on the office week: My Friday Five Miler along Stroudwater Canal

It’s hard to write when you’re fretting about customers and deadlines. However, it’s also hard to distract me from my characters. And work did that, every day in the midst of penning the climax. I’d walk to work plotting battle scenes or plagues or births—and once I got to my desk, the bombardment of emails, phone calls, initiatives from supervisors and questions from junior colleagues helped me forget Eve and her descendants.

After a while I forgot it works the other way around too. If I pick up a chapter and start editing, I can disappear into Eden and its aftermath. For tougher chapters needing more work, I can ease myself in by reading someone else’s—a short story in an online magazine, or an article from BrainPickings, LitHub or Artpublika.

How do you stay creative while buried under spreadsheets? Shall we hold each other to the standard of taking in one piece of art/ literature per day, and noting down three new observations? I’ll be back at the end of the week to report. Comment here, send me a Tweet, or comment on Facebook with any suggestions and if you need any encouragement!

The Art of Being Away

This Week’s Bit of String: Marriage proposal on a t-shirt

When I immigrated to Britain my son was almost 3, quite active, and thankfully for our overnight flight we sat next to someone friendly. Our neighbour on the plane was a medical student from Bulgaria, on his way home to surprise his girlfriend.

She was expecting his best friend, also Bulgarian and studying with him in Boston. “She’ll come to pick him up at the airport,” our flight mate explained, “but instead she’ll get me!” He beamed and pulled a t-shirt out of his carry-on. It was printed with, apparently, “Will you marry me?” in Bulgarian.

I often wonder how he fared. He planned that the wedding would take place after his studies were complete, when he would return to his home country to work. “We need doctors in Bulgaria. I can’t keep that away from them.”

Have Gifts, Will Travel

With a bachelor’s degree in Writing and Literature, and a hodgepodge of hospitality, childcare, and administrative work experience, I didn’t feel I was depriving my home country by leaving. As writers we can set up work anywhere. And hopefully, eventually, we can positively impact people regardless of borders.

Mural depicting 19th-century immigrants on a ship as they get their first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty
Mural at the House of Emigrants museum in Vaxjo, Sweden

Quite a few famous writers throughout history have been travellers and immigrants (articles here and here on great books written by immigrants). Even in an informal Twitter poll of writers I conducted this week, 35% of the respondents now live in a country different from where they were born.

This is partly reflective of our portable vocation, and perhaps of our general exploratory nature. Although as writers we’re often introverts, we feel an irresistible urge to discover and experience more. I think too, it’s possible we’re somewhat itinerant because we’re not the most boundary-conscious people.

Everywhere is writing territory. A train compartment, an airport queue, a historical landmark, a foreign restaurant. Inside someone else’s front garden, inside your head. We cross countless borders, sometimes with questionable authority, and with varying degrees of success.

And sometimes when we’re right there in front of you, we might seem to be somewhat absent.

Home and Abroad

For those writers who don’t take the ultimate leap of immigration, there’s still travel. The many writers who travel seeking adventure, often with children and often faithfully writing about it, impresses me (stunning examples here and here).

I just came back from a short family trip to Denmark and Sweden. At New Year’s we spent a long weekend in Seville. I didn’t write at all, on either of those journeys. I couldn’t even keep a daily diary. Feeding and entertaining my family, maintaining all arrangements and reservations, studying maps and routes and opening times and attractions, then processing photos afterward, those things take up all my time.

Mermaid statue on coastal boulders.
Den hille havfrue (the little mermaid) statue in Copenhagen, clearly dreaming of new adventure.

That said, I still believe travel helps us as writers. From a quick, hard-earned vacation I am reminded to utilise every minute, to watch for differences and similarities around the globe. New realms open up to me while reinforcing common human bonds.

The first story I published took place in Haiti, a nation I visited and fell in love with when I was 16. I love using writing to remember places I’ve seen, which is why some of my writing still takes place in my American home state of New Hampshire.

Side note, the word immigrant actually originated in New Hampshire, first coined in a 1792 history book there by James Belknap. It’s from the French, which in turn was derived from the Latin, for “to remove, go into, move in.”

Immigrant shares its root with the word emerge. To me, that’s possibly the most important part of travel: emerging from the stupor of our routine. We shake ourselves awake from our own story and flit through endless streams of others.

Glass vase etched with a woman hanging laundry in the wind.
In the Glass Museum in Vaxjo, Sweden: Seeing beauty in the mundane.

This includes the magical, like the peace of an old cathedral or a breathtaking sculpture, but also the mundane—how Copenhagen and Seville get rid of their rubbish via an automated vacuum system which sucks it through underground pneumatic tubes to a processing facility. While traveling we’re exposed to the dramatic—help the hotel raise money to provide safe rooms for victims of human trafficking—and the personal, like the mum at the table next to us in a Swedish burger bar, who must have been out for a birthday meal with her partner and adult son, but barely touched her food, sat composed and quiet the whole time, and prepared to leave by slowly pulling her celebratory bouquet from her water glass, one stalk at a time.

Then we return to the daily grind and the stories swarming around us come home to roost. While we’re checking spreadsheets, hanging laundry, or trying to ignore bad bus smells, suddenly we are whisked away again. Borderless, unfettered, we get lost in a new story. Please excuse us if we seem to be away again.

Whether you’re a frequent flyer or someone who enjoys a good staycation, do keep exploring. We need your stories, the ones you bring back and the ones you return refreshed to pick up again.

2018 Reading Round-Up

I didn’t read nearly as many books as last year. It just slipped out of my routine. Don’t worry—I’m working on it. But I did read a broader variety of reading materials. A lot more nonfiction than previously, several classic short story volumes, and even some wondrous poetry. So, buckle up for a more diverse list as I reveal my top reads of 2018.

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
I love a time- and continent-spanning epic. This covered over 500 years, and even better, traced it via a book, the Sarajevo Haggadah, as an artefact. Apparently there’s a science of studying the physical properties of old books; learning about a time period by analysing the binding and ink and paper. This fascinates me, and of course the histories of the people—Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike—outlined in the story did as well.

“‘You sat in your nice little flat all through our war and watched us, bleeding all over the TV news. And you thought, “How awful!” and then you got up and made yourself another cup of gourmet coffee.’ I flinched when he said that. It was a pretty accurate description.”

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit
A really useful little volume which gives a history of activism and includes the victories almost imperceptible at the time, which then influence greater movements. It’s a call to action in a time of environmental crisis and stifling capitalism, but it’s also an encouragement, a reminder that things take time and small steps are worth celebrating.

“Perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible.”

My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki
The perfect treadmill book: fast-paced, with witty insight into the workings of the media, other cultures, and how they perceive Americans. A Japanese-American is hired to make a series for Japanese TV about American family recipes, and each chapter explores a different family while secretly the documentarian investigates what these meats are actually doing to consumers.

“‘Stocking up’ is what our robust Americans called it, laughing nervously, because profligate abundance automatically evokes its opposite, the unspoken specter of dearth.”

Heart Songs and Other Stories by Annie Proulx
Annie Proulx is one of the most talented wordsmiths of the late 20th-early 21st century. Her characters are often spare in their divulgences, but she ensures we know them well. And she delivers us right to the setting of each tale. Lucky for me, a few of these were set in New England, so reading them was like going home.

“Santee longed for the cold weather and unclouded days that lay somewhere ahead, for the sharp chill of spruce shadow, icy rime thickening over twigs and a hard autumnal sky cut by the parabolic flights of birds the same way pond ice was cut by skaters.” From “The Unclouded Day”

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Another multi-generational epic. This one is about slavery and colonialism, and its effects both on those left behind in Africa, and those taken to America. It’s an important reminder that the atrocities lasted a terribly long time, and therefore their effects do too. I hope this story, even if imagined, helps restore the history severed by our old practices.

“Hell was a place of remembering, each beautiful moment passed through the mind’s eye until it fell to the ground like a rotten mango, perfectly useless, uselessly perfect.”

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover
This tells Tara’s journey from a fundamentalist “prepper” family so anti-establishment she never entered a classroom until she managed to get to university. She now holds a PhD from Cambridge. Important takeaways some might overlook: She faithfully shows her estranged family’s positive attributes as hard workers loving as best they knew how, and also she provides an essential outsider perspective on higher education. While it benefited her, she also describes universities as cult-like because of the heavy expectation all students will react the same way to what they are told.

“No amount of anger or rage directed at others can subdue guilt, because it is never about them. Guilt is the fear of one’s own wretchedness. It has nothing to do with other people.”

Cathedral by Raymond Carver
After reading this volume of short stories, I agree he’s one of the greats. More unadorned than Annie Proulx, he chooses his moments well and narrates a character’s actions in detail if not their thoughts or settings. This to me makes it very immediate, while giving a sense that the characters are barely hanging on, just going through the motions. Perhaps this is clearest in the story “A Small, Good Thing:”

“They both stared out at the parking lot. They didn’t say anything. But they seemed to feel each other’s insides now, as though the worry had made them transparent.”

Paper Aeroplane: Poems 1989-2014 by Simon Armitage
So much in this collection: reflections on the meaning of art, poems about everyday life, about relationships, current events, nature—even translations of historic poems. I loved the later nature ones such as “Rain” and “Beck,” I loved the piece poignantly reimagining the Columbine massacre with the shooters randomly passing out flowers instead of bullets, I loved the recent “Poundland” which evokes the shop with brilliantly observed detail but couches it all in terms of epic-style narration that makes me laugh out loud. Hard to choose a single quote here, but I’m going with this one from Armitage’s earlier poem “The Civilians” because it shows his ability to set the scene with unexpected but vivid imagery:

“The golden evenings spread like ointment through the open valleys,
Buttered one side of our spotless washing.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
It’s different. It’s possibly not for everybody. But I’ve enjoyed multi-POV narratives told somewhat experimentally before (Cloud Atlas, for example), and just thinking about this one makes me want to dive back in. I loved Saunders’ detailed imagining of the afterlife, his intense portrayal of grief and its requisite predecessor love, the interlacing of genuine historical testimony, and every voice clamouring to be heard.

“Perhaps this is faith, I thought: to believe our God ever receptive to the smallest good intention.”

If you’ve already explored any of these reads, what did you think of them? Do you have any related recommendations?

Managing the Voices, Part 1: Selection

This Week’s Bit of String: A Fatal Accident

At my smallish rural high school, tragedy was not uncommon. We all knew what it meant when first period was extended and extra staff stood at attention near the doors. In 11th grade the prepared statement informed us a Finnish exchange student I’d befriended had died in a car crash that morning.

Eventually released from the classroom, I held back my own tears thinking about Milja’s parents, thousands of miles away, receiving a phone call from someone who didn’t even speak their language to tell them…

And the students who’d been in the car with her, how on earth would they cope with this trauma?

I heard one boy complain to his friends, ‘I don’t care if some girl died; don’t take part of my break for it.’

So many people are affected by a tragedy. Milja’s memorial service was packed, and given her shyness, I suspected many mourners hadn’t known her well. At the time I may have resented that a bit; how dare they trespass upon our more legitimate grief? But I do understand we can be touched by lives we didn’t fully participate in, especially when we’re young.

It seems sometimes there’s a race to the bottom as everyone claims to be a victim. We’re told by the President of the United States that this is a scary time for young men and that ‘women are doing fine.’ As writers we often take it on ourselves to portray those who suffer most. Is it a good idea now and then to get into the heads of those who suffer less? How do we determine who’s the real victim in a situation, who is the most voiceless?

Who’s Hurting

During the National Association of Writers Groups conference, I went to science fiction writer Ken MacLeod‘s talk, attracted by the workshop’s title: ‘Who’s Hurting? How to Choose Your Protagonist.’ He set exercises imagining a change in the world, and examining who would most be hurt by it.

Early morning web on a reddened bush
So many strands to follow…

I imagined a complete shutdown of immigration in the UK, and sketched out a variety of people. A British woman forcibly estranged from her Nigerian fiancé, an Iranian student worrying about his family, a British pensioner unable to fulfill her dream of emigrating to Australia and now stuck on a small rainy island which inexplicably continues to have traffic jams and strapped public services despite ridding itself of those pesky foreigners. It’s fun to put someone like that in, to mirror our most self-centred instincts.

I assigned the exercise to my writing group last week as well, providing newspapers so they could base scenarios on current events. I was treated to a great variety of snippets: about AI parole officers, neighbourhood sinkholes, post-Brexit deep sea fishing practices, and more.

Portraying Victims

Once we’ve seized a plot idea and mapped out its effects on potential characters, we need to reflect on how to convey those voices. Amid heightened awareness regarding appropriation, sometimes respectful distance is required. Considering different characters doesn’t mean we can or should pose as them.

At the Cheltenham Literature Festival, I was struck by Japanese author Masatsugu Ono’s honesty about his novel Lion Cross Point, which concerns a little boy relocating after terrible trauma. When asked how he chose the point of view for his novel, he said he initially wanted to tell the mother’s story, but struggled to grasp her psychology. ‘Of course,’ he noted, ‘I am man.’

So he switched to her young son’s point of view, because ‘he had the most suffering.’ But then he shied away a bit. Ono felt that since he hadn’t been through what his child protagonist had, ‘it wouldn’t be fair to the boy’ to appropriate his voice. Instead, he gave himself some distance and allowed some doubt about the events.Main arch into the Cheltenham Literature Festival site at Montpellier Gardens

His rule for himself when dealing with the sensitive subject of abuse recovery was, ‘Never say definitely what happened, but perhaps.’

While I’m not a fan of intentional withholding in storytelling, his approach as recounted in the Festival’s cosy Nook venue made sense. As writers we want to ensure the most aching underbelly of events is exposed. But we need to do so without presumption. There’s so much we can’t know, and maybe we shouldn’t pretend we do.

Portraying Non-Victims

Mr. Ono’s talk made me think about how larger events are portrayed through literature. Take the Holocaust, for example. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book about Europe in that era that doesn’t have a central Jewish character. Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay links a privileged late twentieth century woman to a terrorised Jewish child under the Vichy puppet government. In Jenna Blum’s Those Who Save Us, an American woman sets out to investigate the experiences of German bystanders like her mum—until (spoiler alert) she finds out that actually, her mother had her with a Jewish man who was then killed in the nearby concentration camp. So in fact she and her mother were perilously close to being condemned themselves.

Conserving Holocaust remembrances is vital, and we must keep working tales of the persecuted into our stories. But how many of us are really going to be victimised in that way? As culture wars and partisanship reach a feverish pitch, there’s a lot to watch out for: stealth legislation against immigrants, income inequality, climate change. Many of us, though, will remain free to post thoughtful Facebook statuses and campaign for paper straws and march for Planned Parenthood and then just get on with our lives.

So I wonder if we need a few stories about the ‘lucky’ ones. What’s the best way to help when other people’s worlds crumble? We see stories of infiltrating corruption from the top, or starting revolutions from the bottom. How do we sacrifice the comfort of the middle (admit it, there are comforts…) and join the battle?

When it comes down to it, tragedies affect us in various ways. If not directly then they remind us to care, like the people who turned up at Milja’s funeral. Or they force our indifference like the boy complaining about the minutes shaved off of breaktime. In choosing our characters, let’s remember that drawing attention to issues through our writing doesn’t allow us to be victims ourselves. It doesn’t replace taking other courses of action to help. Where do you find yourself in the race to the bottom?

Next time, Managing the Voices, Part 2: Collection. We’ll look at the ethics, or lack thereof, behind gathering material for our characters, and we’ll find out what happened to the boy who claimed not to care about Milja’s fate.

Plot Twist!

This Week’s Bit of String: Totally random, last-minute allegations

The latest U.S. Supreme Court nominee looked fresh out of central casting, just how the Republican President likes them. A prep school-educated soccer dad, a longtime federal judge who’d prosecuted Clinton and defended George W. Bush, Brett Kavanaugh would surely win confirmation by the required slim majority in a Congress dominated by his own party.

Suddenly, an opposing senator produced a woman who said bad things about the soccer dad! Total plot twist—who could have seen that coming?

Except, of course, that spontaneous plot twists rarely happen in real life. There are tremors before a facade breaks. The judge’s confirmation process in the Senate had already been contentious, with Republicans rushing procedures, and evidence Kavanaugh lied under oath about receiving documents stolen from Democrats during the Bush administration.

In the meantime, before the full allegations were public, Kavanaugh attempted to shore up character witnesses among former classmates.

Before that, when Kavanaugh’s name merely featured on the Republican shortlist of Supreme Court justice contenders, research psychologist Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford tried to get word to the Capitol via her own Congresswoman. Six years earlier, Dr. Blasey-Ford had confided to her husband and to a therapist that Kavanaugh had assaulted her as a teen.

This is the far-reaching timeline on the individual level, saying nothing of the conflict’s political roots. There was bitterness over President Obama’s nominee being blocked from even getting a hearing, but I suspect Supreme Court positions slid into partisanship long before that.

We’re sometimes told to put twists in our stories, a formula foisted particularly on short stories. But I’m dubious, not just because my own ideas tend to unfurl rather than wrench. Some twists are either overused or dropped in with insufficient forethought.

Twist vs. Mystery

A narrowing forest trail under beech trees
Twists ahead?

Any good story should move a reader. It might shake us up, or pry us open to new viewpoints, or rob our breath as we pursue the outcome. If a concept is fresh, I’m not sure it needs a twist, because there’s no danger of guessing the ending. And if the characters are engrossing, we’ll be biting our nails to see if they’re okay.

Twists have a long literary history, but there’s always a prevailing trend. For the ancient Greeks, the plot twist tended to be a deity (or in Iocaste’s unfortunate case, a son) in disguise. Shakespeare carried this on with his mistaken identity plot twists and fatal presumptions, and Dickens evolved this further by ensuring many characters turned out to somehow be related, often to someone with a fortune. In our current age of psychological awareness, many twists pertain to troubled pasts. Crime dramas usually have an insider working for the villain, reflecting increased distrust toward institutions.

Given these trends, twists can be predictable. But they don’t have to be wedged in just before a story’s conclusion. While at the National Association of Writers Groups conference a month ago, I attended a workshop on plotting and utilising twists. It was given by Simon Hall, a former BBC journalist and current writer of The TV Detective series.

Mr. Hall reminded us that suspense is of paramount importance and that twists can come in the form of unreliable narrators, or confounded conventions. Pace can be maintained by rows or chases. His advice for creating drama: “Corner your character like a feral animal.”

Trails crossing and winding around the Malvern Hills
Many paths, many options

I like the idea that a twist can simply defy expectations, particularly as my current project is a novel from Eve’s point of view. There’s a wealth of supposed knowledge to subvert. But I also think about the books I’ve read and loved. The ones that engross me do so because of the characters.

For example, I loved Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith. The midway point-of-view change was the most shocking twist I’ve ever read, but she gave herself time to justify the complete reversal. I then read her latest book, The Paying Guests. It had no point-of-view switch, no misdirection, no big shocker. But I was completely hooked, terrified things wouldn’t turn out all right for the heroines.

Casting a Foreshadowing

I asked the Twittersphere how important twists are in non-genre fiction. Scifi/ fantasy writer Wilfred said, “I’m not a huge fan of twists that seem to come out of nowhere and only demonstrate the writer’s determination to stay one step ahead. I do love a twist that would still surprise me yet at the same time remind me of a previous chapter.”

Author and Road to Publishing blogger I.M. Moore agrees that “if a twist is way too obvious or comes completely out of left field without any evidence to back it up, I get a bit annoyed.”

Poet Anne Sheppard, whom I’m privileged to know off-Twitter as we’re in the same Writers’ Group, distinguishes between plot twists and suspense: “Not too keen on plot twists but I do like to be surprised.”

Author and micropoet Ellen Grace offered this reminder: “You are the conduit for the story. If the story has a twist in it, then it has a twist in it. But it’s never a good idea to shoehorn one in just because you think there should be one.”

And freelance writer Libbie Kay Toler echoes, “It’s your path to explore.”

Some paths are twistier than others. There’s a certain deliciousness in occasionally bucking the trend and letting a villain be a villain, without or despite a tortured past (like Voldemort, and maybe like some on the opposing side wanted Brett Kavanaugh to be).

We know how some stories will go—but we devour them, anxious to see how rather than what. Take Joanne Harris’s Five Quarters of the Orange or Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, books with narrators reflecting over an incident. I’m more inclined to revisit a book like this than something with a more dramatic twist. After all, if a shocker is my prevalent memory of a book, I can never recapture that surprise. But when anticipation builds, I want to go back and savour those clues.

TV writing provides further examples. I’ve been re-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer (it’s an antidote for how Dr. Blasey Ford and other assault victims are being spoken to, and laughed at, in certain circles of power.)

Network of roots from an upturned tree
Roots in all directions

I love mining the show’s seams of foreshadowing. Near the beginning of Season 2, Buffy first fights with Spike. “I’ll make it quick. It won’t hurt a bit,” he sneers, and she counters, “No Spike, it’s going to hurt a lot.” No truer words ever spoken by characters destined to fall in love.

Part of my editing process is ensuring the seeds are planted. To lightly play up encounters that will later be significant, to ensure that a particular aspect of a setting is briefly noted ahead of time. John Irving’s books keep up the pace with seemingly random, entertaining incidents, but they all turn out to be pivotal plot points, as with “the Stunt” and the dressmaker’s dummy and the armadillo in A Prayer for Owen Meany. With him, the excitement is as much in finding how it fits together as finding out what happens.

In real life, twists tend to double back on themselves. Those who speak up can be brushed aside. It’s no surprise that the Republican party didn’t properly examine their authoritarian president’s Supreme Court nominee. Every dramatic twist these days gets bulldozed over rather than ironed out, and seems to make no difference. (Remember Omarosa’s tapes? Paul Manafort’s plea deal? All consigned to the red herring barrel.)

If there’s going to be a new ending, the clues are small and in the background. And maybe we haven’t spotted it because we aren’t following the right characters.

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?