Never One Thing at a Time

This Week’s Bit of String: The ultimate tear-jerker

Our GCSE students (aged 16) had their last exam this week and took their leave. For the ones we’d worked closely with, we threw a little party with balloons and refreshments. A couple of us got cards and prosecco in return.

“No one got me anything,” joked one of my fellow teaching assistants. “I’m going to cry. I will!” But she couldn’t muster the promised waterworks with us watching.

A last lingering Year 11 girl, the most reluctant to leave, offered this: “I know what will make you cry. It always works: when someone asks, ‘Are you okay?’”

This student is one of the most perceptive people I’ve ever met, let alone one of the most perceptive teens. She was spot on. We’ve all been there, haven’t we, when we’re muddling on in a lonely blur and then someone stops and asks how we are, with genuine interest. 

And there go the floodgates.

The key to these gates will vary, depending on the magnitude and current of what’s behind them. This is not just a female thing, either; guys are equally likely to get triggered by something seemingly small. 

When I first immigrated, I was so alone and the British townspeople were so preoccupied and indifferent, a rare Hello from a stranger had me fighting tears. Since then, I got somewhat inured to being away, able to bumble along preoccupied myself. But when my son moved to America a few weeks ago, leaving me separated from both my best little buddy and my whole family, that changed things.

7 weeks ago

Colleagues know better than to ask if I’m ok. They ask how he’s getting on instead, and the news is generally good. They say, you must miss him so much, which saves me from having to say it. Much of the time, therefore, I maintain equilibrium. There’s a constant ache, a horrifically deep emptiness, dulled by almost-daily messages he and I exchange and by my relentless counting down until I can go see him (5 weeks and 2 days). In some moments it has been piercing, like when I put clean sheets on his bed and wondered if I should keep the pillows how he likes them or stack them tall. Or when I went to send a care package and the post office got grouchy over the extra barcode on the customs sticker.

Triggers are necessary because they give us a choice: Hey, you know that deluge you’re hiding behind the dam? Can we try channeling it, please, before it starts to leak? Sometimes we feel we have to keep refusing, and other times maybe we can’t put it off any longer.

Literary Triggers

At a Retreat West workshop a couple weeks ago, we learned about the importance of having your book’s “inciting incident” right at the beginning, to hook readers in. This is different from the climactic showdown or the big reveal. Often, it’s one small thing that kicks everything else out of inaction.

Rather than the writer throwing a wrench into the protagonist’s works, usually the writer is nudging the protagonist into the uncomfortable realisation that their way of life isn’t really working

Great examples of this are Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, or Piranesi. Eleanor would have kept on refusing any company apart from the Glen’s vodka from Tesco if she hadn’t been sent to that charity concert and developed an ill-advised crush on a singer. Piranesi would have kept wandering the statued halls of The House, recording tide times, if signs of visitors hadn’t begun to appear. 

Mind the falls.

Even when a story begins with a main character choosing to make a change, they often don’t fathom how badly that change is needed or where it will take them. This has been true of literature for as long as storytelling has existed: Chaucer’s pilgrims wouldn’t have realised how much they’d learn on their journey; Romeo had no idea how far he’d go for love when he went to the party to see Rosaline.

When we write stories, we’re not attacking our characters with suffering for the fun of it. Our imaginations have found someone who needs liberation, and we’re plotting a way to spring them free.

For Our Own Protection

In real life, incidents don’t spiral in an orderly manner. It’s not a series of clues and incremental escalation, sometimes it’s everything at once and sometimes it’s like, “Ooh maybe things are about to settle down,” and then bam, another thing hits you. Meet a friend for a catch-up, and as you recount the last couple of months you’ll be thinking, This sequence of events would not fly in fiction. Readers would be too confused.

18 years ago. You never know how things will end up.

Honestly, I’m kind of glad it’s that way. Imagine if our lives progressed more rhythmically. If we were characters in a book and something went wrong, we’d have to ask ourselves, is this trying to teach me a lesson? Is this merely foreshadowing a massive climactic battle later on?

As it is, I can pour myself into work, helping students cope with their own stress and trauma, and I can write my grief into my novel instead of feeling it as my own. I need to edit this story of Eve so she more quickly learns to use her voice; learns that it is her own even if one of her ribs is not. For that to happen, stuff’s got to go wrong, to force her to wonder how she put up with everything, years after being exiled from Eden and then losing her first two sons.

While I work, and work on writing, I can ride it out, 5 weeks and 2 days. It’s already 7 weeks of separation, and there have been plenty of mini-crises to interrupt the trajectory of contemplating my new life: exams and Supreme Court decisions, viruses and injuries, something scurrying in the roofspace when we try to go to sleep. Who knows what else will come up, whether they will keep distracting me from loneliness or force me to confront it. I suspect the former; I’m grateful not to have to slow down.

What about you? Are YOU okay?

Filling Spaces

This Week’s Bit of String: Dragons and evacuees and musicals, oh my…

Confession the First: In second grade I had to write a complete story for school, and I sort of stole it from a computer game. I didn’t know how to invent whole new ideas, and my family had been working through Sierra Entertainment’s King’s Quest games 1 and 2. They were monochromatic with blippy music, but loads of fun. I couldn’t get them out of my mind.

In turn, the games themselves borrowed fairy tale elements, so while I felt as if I should have come up with something original, I also figured borrowing stuff was allowed.

A story starts out as a bunch of objects. Why not begin with whatever ones we want?

I was already skilled at pastiche. Before even starting school, I’d assign my stuffed animals roles based on Narnia characters or von Trapp children from Sound of Music, to enact and sometimes remix my favourite tales. Less than a decade later, I devised a series of novels set during the holocaust. I had a plot but didn’t know enough people to inform strong characterisations (particularly of the male variety; middle school does not offer a rich seam of girl-boy friendships).

So, once again, I borrowed. I had characters based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, and other books I liked. I’ve mentioned this before. They weren’t pristine or even recognisable copies, since I was putting them in different circumstances with different companions. But it helped me to carry on creating when I had a picture in my mind.

Just for the Moment…

In the first King’s Quest game, released in 1980, if you tried to turn your character a certain way in certain frames, or if you generally attempted something not in the programming, a message would pop up on the screen: “You can’t do that—at least not now!”

Sometimes, writing is like that. We have some of the ingredients for a full story, but are missing others. And you have to just put something in as a stopgap, in order to keep going.

At work I’m helping students prepare for exams. Every Year 11 in the country has to take the same subject exams, regardless of special needs or life circumstances. If they don’t pass at age 16 they must keep taking them each year. (I could pour my hatred of this system into several blog posts, ranging in temperature from grouchy to scathing, but I won’t trouble you with it now.) Most of my students have processing issues and biological literacy challenges that impair their ability to even understand the questions, which are set to trip students up anyway.

Still, we tell them to try. If it’s a Maths paper, put down whatever calculations you do and write something for the answer, even if it’s a guess. For the English papers, write as much as you can think of. Just put something down in those blank pages, to increase your chances of a pass.

In standard writing practice, we do something similar. A common exercise to get thoughts and words flowing is to free write for 5-15 minutes. You must keep writing the whole time, and you’re instructed, if you can’t think of something to write, to keep your pencil moving anyway. You can write “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know,” or “blah blah blah,” but keep writing. Fill in the blanks.

Purloined Persons

Confession the Second: I haven’t written new fiction in almost a year. I have written hundreds of pages, scribbling about my daily life and the odd fleeting idea. I’ve done blog posts. But I haven’t created, I haven’t added building blocks to a story. Lack of time, headspace, energy, you know how it is.

All kinds of building blocks to make this wall.

With the Easter holidays beginning, I decided to give it a go. After all, the longer you wait to do something, the more you believe you’re doomed to fail. Have you found that?

I unearthed a pretty decent story opening. I don’t entirely know what’s meant to happen in it. I’ve not been able to pull advances out of thin air. Why not borrow something, then? What if I take someone I know a little bit about, unpick the thread of a distinguishing characteristic or background detail, and then weave those into some gaps in my story?

It sounds kind of ruthless. Callous, perhaps, to borrow a person’s attributes. I don’t usually consciously do this. But sometimes you just have to fill in the blanks, and once you add to the ingredients you’ve already got, it’s all going to change anyway.

Sometimes a song or a picture will unlock a key element we need for our work. Other times we need a stronger nudge. Having come up with this plan, I managed to write 700 new words in just an hour and a half, even while frequently running off to check on dinner cooking. It’s still my own story, I just needed a bridge from reality into my long-unaccessed imagination. Already, now she’s got some words behind her, the character is finding her voice to tell me all sorts of things distinguishing her from her inspiration. And a story gets reworked so many times, characters evolve drastically.

What tricks do you have for filling gaps? Have there been things you loved so much, they may have shown up in your work, one way or another?

What Moves Us

This Week’s Bit of String: Possible planetary shift

“Miss, is it true that moving the earth even a centimetre out of orbit would basically destroy everything?” 

I’m not certain, Year 11 child who’s supposed to be completing a textbook-based cover lesson on greenhouse gases in the last period of the schoolday. 

If I’d thought critically about what an orbit is, and the way it represents the equilibrium of attraction between two planetary bodies, I would probably have confirmed the student’s query. A change in orbit could trigger sudden prolonged extreme temperatures or just cause the earth to plummet into the sun which, come to that, would be a particularly prolonged temperature change. 

But it’s hard to properly consider an extra theory when you still have remnants of covid brain from less than two weeks ago, and you’re trying to prepare teenagers for exams while fielding queries from cover teacher and students alike, such as: “Did you find Jacob?” and “Miss, what’s your opinion about amputees?” (Kids are just weird, ok?)

A perfect orbit

Anyway, once I was home and the dust of my thoughts settled, I channeled them into a new wormhole. I researched what would happen if the earth’s orbit skewed, if its tilt altered, and also looked into the calculations being done to check the feasibility of moving the earth further from the sun

All interesting and fairly unlikely, but what intrigued me was what, I suspect, intrigues a lot of us readers and writers. How a tiny change can make a big difference, how a slight tick of motion can catalyse vast movements.

Being Moved

My most recent (and utterly wonderful) read was Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love, in which a character mentions being “moved” by a book. “It moved me in a way one hopes to be moved each time one begins a book. What I mean is, in some way I’d find impossible to describe, it changed me.” 

I thought, couldn’t they have come up with a better verb for such a significant impact? “Move” is stretched wearily over many meanings. But as I reflected on our use of move, I warmed to the term. Sometimes having multiple uses is appropriate. It allows a word extra levels.

We talk about moving up or moving out. We move house and move away, dream of moving mountains and possibly moving the earth’s orbit. There are chess moves and symphonic movements and moves to proceed or to adjourn. Aristotle even came up with a theory referring to God as the Unmoved Mover.

A book (or other work of art) is an Unmoved Mover. It didn’t spring up out of nowhere, but by the time we hold it in our hands, it is standing on its own, detached from its maker. Its power is only what we can take from it, yet it gives so much.

Roots and Tongues

The oldest known version of the word move comes from the proto-Indo-European root meaning “to push away.” There are undoubtedly books that knock us slightly out of orbit. Our temperature heats up, and we proceed with a certain rawness. It’s often, as Krauss writes, impossible to point out a concrete change in our lives. Yet who can say what we notice, how we react, that comes down to our sensitivity being pricked by a book?

The challenge of capturing motion

While thinking about our use of this word in English, I consulted the gloriously warm and talented poet Elizabeth M Castillo. She is fluent in several languages, and let me know about the word “ému” in French, which is deeper and longer-lasting than “moved.” I suppose it’s a bit like our word emote, but in English that sounds sort of… clinical.

“Affect” or “inspire” are a bit vague, whereas I’ve come to like the physical, visceral implications of “move.” A story can be touching, but to say a book “touches” me feels uneasy.

In Spanish, Castillo says, there’s “conmovido,” which is different from their word for physical movement. It “implies something or someone is doing it to you… bringing you along into a feeling.” A bit like an Unmoved Mover, again.

Stories on the Move

I feel as if the best reads can be Unmoved Mover books that give you a shove, or companion books that move along with you, or paper boat books which do the moving for you. Elizabeth M Castillo’s poetry book Cajoncito is one of the latter. Reading her poems, I feel relieved, as if someone’s unlocked sentiments I hadn’t managed to untangle yet, and set them afloat. It’s on sale through Amazon, and honestly the first poem alone is worth the price. 

It’s not just books, of course. Would I have made it through my teen years without accompaniment from Tori Amos and the Les Miserables soundtrack? Have you ever had the lights go up from a live stage production and felt your life as you knew it is over; you’ve been elevated to a different plane and your trajectory has inevitably, if not definably, swerved? In the end, have you come up for a better word to describe the general experience than… “moving?”

Book Review: The Shadows We Cast by Sarah Tinsley

Blazing a trail for literary women to get angry

New year, new literature: after an array of great reads in 2021, I kicked off 2022 with Sarah Tinsley’s debut novel The Shadows We Cast, available from SLR Publishing. This book made me realise how many frontiers are still available for literature to explore. Unflinching but nuanced, this dual narrative of a sexual assault feels powerful enough to start changing the world.

Sarah puts the content warning right in the blurb on the back of the brilliantly designed book jacket. Here’s what it says:

What if you couldn’t recognise the violence in others? Or in yourself?
Nina refuses to accept the role of passive victim after being sexually assaulted. She becomes obsessed with an online vendetta that risks her job, her friendships, and her sanity.
Eric thinks, if anything, he’s too nice. But when he takes advantage of a stranger he is forced to confront the kind of man he really is.
The Shadows We Cast is a dark novel about consent and control that unsettles ideas about victims and villains.

A fast-paced read with deeply drawn characters

Sarah is a friend of mine and has helped me a great deal with my own writing. (She can help with yours, too–check out her wonderful workshops here.) I was excited when she announced her book deal and what The Shadows We Cast is about, knowing she would give it deep, honest treatment. But I was a little scared too. Because of previous experiences, I find it hard to read about sexual assault. Nightmares come more readily, and I feel more exposed while paradoxically the world and my current life seem more distant from me.

Actually, it’s like this line from page 9 of Sarah’s novel. After being attacked the protagonist, Nina, experiences “dreams that made her feel blunt and smudged. She feels like an echo.”

This book doesn’t build up to the rape. As Sarah herself noted during her book launch, too often rape is used as a plot twist, or maybe a dramatic reveal in someone’s backstory. The Shadows We Cast has twists and wields dramatic irony deftly, but it’s very honest about sexual assault. That bit’s already happened. The whole book deals with the gritty aftermath—not just the aftermath for Nina the victim, but also for Eric, her assailant.

And here’s what I found really scary. While taking Nina through the utterly altered landscape of her life following this trauma, Sarah allowed her to get really angry, and to act on that anger.

Sarah invited us to bring cocktails for the virtual book launch, because as she rightly pointed out, honesty even about dark subjects deserves celebration.

How often, in literature, mythology, or even in real life do we allow women to do angry things? From Clytemestra to The Taming of the Shrew to Mrs. Rochester in her attic, no matter what befalls them women are meant to do no harm. The character arc of an angry woman will be that she learns to forgive; she’ll be subdued by love or she’ll face drastic punishment as the villain. Yet in this novel, Nina’s anger is quite powerful and drives her to be truly destructive.

It’s a bit worrying that reading about Nina’s rage disturbed me more than the unflinching catalogue of the injuries she sustained during the attack, or the blurred lines (see what I did there?) in Eric’s mind as he considers what he’s done. This aversion to anger must be a societal effect on me rather than just a personal issue, and now I wonder: have I been depriving my own characters, particularly the female ones, of the right to rage? Is our world ready to acknowledge this now?

I did some research after reading through The Shadows We Cast. It’s a real page-turner, and the ending was quite satisfying. I found an interview about angry women in Greek mythology, the differences between the domestic and political spheres. Thinking about Shakespeare’s heroines, I read this article about the newfound popularity of Measure for Measure, and to top it all off here’s a reading list featuring angry women, because after all this time, why not?

Of course, the reading list was produced before Sarah launched The Shadows We Cast. I definitely recommend checking that one out first, and you can purchase it here. Plus, you won’t want to miss reading more about Sarah and her other work on her site. Please let me know what you think, and whether you have tips on allowing characters to follow their rage. I might need a few of those!

2021 Reading Round-Up

This wasn’t my most prodigious reading year, but I’m incredibly grateful for the books I did get to read. There were some long-anticipated hits, and some delightful surprises. In my top ten alone, there’s quite a range from comics to inspiration to memoir with of course plenty of forays into fiction.

As always, I’m including a favourite quote from each book. That’s the best bit! Previous years’ top ten lists are here, here, here, and here.

Things I Don’t Want to Know by Deborah Levy

This is a quick read, meandering through episodes of Levy’s writing life. From the riveting opening sentence through travels in Majorca and flashbacks to Levy’s childhood in apartheid South Africa, I was engrossed in her reflections. As she crosses geographical borders, she also investigates the borders between secrecy and sharing. How deeply can women writers afford to feel?

I read The Midnight Library while visiting London after Christmas

“Smiling was a way of keeping people out of your head even though you’d opened your head when you parted your lips.”

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

An exploration of the multiverse that can result from a single life, Haig’s popular novel is like having someone read you a choose-your-own adventure book. The protagonist gets to pick different volumes off the shelves and read herself into alternate lives. It culminates with satisfying vibes of “Merry Christmas, you beautiful old broken down Building and Loan!”

“She had shrunk for him, but he still hadn’t found the space he needed.”

Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh

Another volume of her irreverent, candid, hand-illustrated memoir. My whole family loves Brosh’s work. I laughed hysterically reading about how she raided her neighbour’s house as a child, and then later in the book I cried at her struggles. She champions her uniqueness while also being incredibly relatable.

“Because that’s intimacy, Buckaroos. Somebody who understands exactly how weird you are, and you understand how weird they are, and you’re sort of in a mutually beneficial hostage situation.”

Brick Lane by Monica Ali

One sister stays in Bangladesh and tries to earn her living in a garment factory and then as a household servant, while the other comes to London as a Muslim bride, speaking no English. Multifaceted characters, perfect descriptions, a plot spanning two continents and volatile periods in recent history.

Finished Brick Lane while headed north to the Lakes District in the summer.

“Outside, mist bearded the lampposts and a gang of pigeons turned weary circles on the grass like prisoners in an exercise yard.”

The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander

This is a pivotal read for shaking up your routine, challenging yourself, and making the most of life. It helps you believe in the positives—not just in yourself, but in others. I loved the “Giving an A” chapter, promising students an A in a college course provided they write a detailed letter at the start on what they’ll do to earn it, and then follow through.

“It is only when we make mistakes in performance that we can really begin to notice what needs attention. In fact, I actively train my [music] students that when they make a mistake, they are to lift their arms in the air, smile, and say, ‘How fascinating!’ I recommend that everyone do this.”

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

An award-winning debut novel tackling race and class, and having to grow up. I loved the depictions of friendships, and child-rearing. The main characters are a baby-sitter who loves her charge so much it brought tears to my eyes, and a mum who is still not comfortable enough in her own skin to genuinely care for a pre-schooler who may have the same insecurities.

“‘You get real fired up about what happened that night in Market Depot. But I don’t need you to be mad that it happened. I need you to be mad that it just, like… happens.’”

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

This is also a dual narrative about race and class, but it’s set in the American South before the Civil War and Emancipation. The enslaved characters try to keep their culture alive and their family bonds unbroken. I read it fearing for their safety, but also admiring the spirit of the main character, Handful.

“You come from your mauma, you sleep in the bed with her till you’re near twenty years grown, and you still don’t know what haunches in the dark corners of her.”

Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

A mystery, almost a thriller, as well as a fictional journey of self-discovery. The narrative voice is so compelling, you feel for her and want to protect her even as she self-sabotages her quest for companionship by being harsh with those around her. It’s uplifting to read about Elinor coming to terms with not being completely fine.

“These days, loneliness is the new cancer—a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing so horrifying you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them.”

Springtime back garden fun with these floofs, reading Brown Baby.

Brown Baby by Nikesh Shukla

Reading this memoir is like spending a day with your best friend. I really wanted to turn up on Shukla’s doorstep and ask to go walking together or something. This is a memoir about the sacrifices and joys of parenting, about raising a small person of colour in an unwelcoming world, about grief and making connections with the family you grew up with. He puts everything in it really, and writes with such warmth and humour.

“If you sleep when the baby sleeps, you have effectively given up. You live by their routine. You are pandering to their tyranny. You’re never sleeping longer than an hour anymore. And you’re wearing dirty pants.”

The Dig Street Festival by Chris Walsh

This hilarious and lovely novel comes from independent publisher Louise Walters Books, and I will be grateful to Twitter forever because without it I wouldn’t have heard about Walsh’s book. Very British and quirky, it takes an endearing, well-meaning protagonist with a Dostoevsky-ish inner monologue through Kafkaesque plot twists with a Dickensian cast of characters. Honestly, it’s just mad fun; please give it some love.

The trouble was, our minds were hard-wired to find patterns in any thing, and to lock into them like meaning-seeking missiles. Not only would we hungrily identify patterns, we would immediately adopt them, fatten them up, farm them, breed and multiply them.”

If you’ve already discovered any of these stories, let’s talk! If you haven’t read them before but decide to give one or two a try, I hope you just love them.

2020 Reading Round-Up

I read thirty books this last year. You’d think, given lockdown and whatnot, that I’d have managed to read more than before, but I’m probably not alone in experiencing a continued dearth of leisure time. I suspect the hours previously spent commuting got absorbed by actually working more hours while at home, plus just, you know, trying to make life go on through the upheaval. Here are my very top ten out of a lot of good, transporting reads.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

In this partly historical, partly speculative story about pursuing freedom, Mr. Whitehead laid nearly all the eras of American racist atrocities out concurrently. It’s a rough look in the mirror but essential. He also tried to illuminate the inner life of a person born and raised in enslavement, and how it might limit one’s focus. I found the protagonist Cora compelling for her determination and understandable cynicism, and it was deeply irritating to see some Goodreads reviews complaining that she wasn’t sunny enough.

“A small freedom was the worst punishment of all, presenting the bounty of true freedom in painful relief.”

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

A fun and thrilling novel about exploring natural history in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and women’s roles in such discoveries. Set in an old mansion by often violent seas, it turns into a murder mystery with small-town treachery, solved by a really clever 14-year-old girl protagonist. This was my Christmas holiday feast following my own fossil-digging expedition the week before.

“It must be very relaxing being Mr. Jacklers, deaf to the crunch of other people’s feelings beneath his well-intentioned boots.”

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

I happened to be reading this one during World Book Day, which also happens to be St. David’s Day. Nothing like warm Welsh cakes and a great book!

I read the whole Neapolitan series at the start of this year, starting while we were actually in Sorrento, about an hour’s train ride south of Naples. They’re all intriguing, with intimate portrayals yet surprising turns. Elena’s educational journey, though, and the defiance of Lila’s first marriage including the perspective of her confused and brutal husband, made this possibly my favourite in the series.

“She deserved Nino, in other words, because she thought that to have him meant to try to have him, not to hope that he would want her.”

Smash All the Windows by Jane Davis

An award-winning, self-published novel about families coping with the aftermath of a disaster and the inquiry into its causes. Jane Davis created such beautifully nuanced characters in this, it’s hard to believe it was fiction, and I loved the added angle of using art to cope with grief. She also showed impeccable timing in revealing the different pieces and perspectives of the original event. You can read more about the writer’s process and her other (also acclaimed) work in this interview with author Sarah Tinsley.

“‘Artists have to make choices. We can make a small noise about a lot of things or a lot of noise about one thing.’”

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Another superbly crafted book with an enormous cast. It delved into so many different lives, spanning race and sexuality, making each person believable and sympathetic. I loved the ending, when every character was quite perfectly brought together. For me, the narrative style of line-by line rather than in standard paragraph form really worked, as if reading thought fragments, pulse by pulse. I found myself conducting my own observations in the same rhythm for a couple of weeks, it was so transfixing.

“the house breathes differently when Yazz isn’t there
waiting for her to return and create some more noise and chaos
she hopes she comes home after university
most of them do these days, don’t they?
they can’t afford otherwise
Yazz can stay forever
really”

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler

I hadn’t read any Anne Tyler yet, and I loved this first taste, the idea of the Homesick Restaurant, where diverse chefs cook a favourite home meal different each night, plus of course the distinct characterisations of the whole family in the story. It reminds me of John Irving’s work, which I usually love—but a little more concise and sort of snarky, too. I mean, check out this sample which says so much about the family:

“His mother told Jenny not to slouch, told Cody not to swear, asked Ezra why he wouldn’t stand up to the neighbourhood bully. ‘I’m trying to get through life as a liquid,’ Ezra had said, and Cody (trying to get through life as a rock) had laughed.”

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

A family story and a plague story, this was stunningly immersive. It spins the normal, patriarch-oriented history on its head by never referring to England’s most famous writer by name. He is merely The Tutor, or Agnes’s husband, or Susanna’s or Hamnet’s father. This twist comes off as perfectly natural amidst the insightful re-imaginings of Agnes Shakespeare (Anne Hathaway), and her three children. The smart, strong, grieving mother will stay in my thoughts at least as long as any of her husband’s characters.

A couple of these volumes were procured from Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, Bath

“Why would she ever want to behold anything else, when she could be taking in the sight of Susanna’s ears, like the pale folds of roses, the winglike sweep of her tiny eyebrows, the dark hair, which clings to her crown as if painted there by a brush? There is nothing more exquisite than her child.”

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

In a year with minimal travel, more than ever I love a book that can transport me. This one balances two storylines, doubling the mileage. There’s the story of 16-year-old Nao in Tokyo, her suicidal father, her Buddhist nun great-grandmother Old Jiko, and Jiko’s son who was killed fighting (or appearing to fight) in WWII. There’s also Ruth’s story, as she finds Nao’s diary washed up on a remote Canadian Pacific island. This was a great epic about life and death and purpose, while being warm and cheekily authentic.

“Does the half-life of information correlate with the decay of our attention? Is the Internet a kind of temporal gyre, sucking up stories, like geodrift, into its orbit?”

Circe by Madeline Miller

Having written my own book from the perspective of Eve, I was eager to read another female-perspective story about an oft-maligned mythological character. Circe the witch, as portrayed here, tells her story in a way I really connected to; she’s empathetic to all others and unassuming about her own power. I preferred hearing about her with the gods and heroes as mere cameos rather than reading their often similarly told stories, and I appreciated the world-building more from this less entitled narrator.

“The darkness around us shimmered with clouds of the Trygon’s gilded blood. Beneath my feet were the bones of a thousand years. I thought: I cannot bear this world a moment longer.
“‘Then, child, make another.’”

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Another epic—a bit more serious, a bit more dense, yet truly rewarding and beautiful. We have Marie in Vancouver, seeking her beloved sort-of-cousin Ai-Ming in China. Much of the book is recounting Ai-Ming’s stories about her grandmother, Big Mother Knife, in WWII China, then her father Sparrow adjusting to the fluctuating restrictions and demands of Communism, up to Ai-Ming’s own survival of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. We’re treated to examples of how love and creativity manifest themselves through oppression and separation. There’s so much in this book, maybe it best speaks for itself with this quote:

“‘Don’t ever try to be only a single thing, an unbroken human being. If so many people love you, can you honestly be just one thing?’”

Looking at this list, 9 of my top 10 reads last year were written by women. Not surprising as I only read 7 books by men in 2020. This wasn’t planned or anything, these were just the books I really wanted to read, and through a pandemic, and painful separations, they made me feel I was in the best possible hands.

What were your favourite reads in 2020? Did you have different or similar reactions to the books I’ve read? Do you think current events coloured your choices and your interpretations?

Likeable, Shmikeable: Managing the Voices, Part 2

Interview with Helen Taylor, Author of Backstreets of Purgatory

‘My mother didn’t tell me we were leaving my father until we were on the plane from California. I was only five, I thought we were just going on vacation, and she brought me here to New England.’ Nate told me his story while we painted a cemetery fence in temperatures so hot the coating never lost its stickiness. It was our summer job after freshman year.

‘I was so angry I cussed her out in the middle of the plane. Later I found out he used to hit her.’

A year and a half later, he was the one expressing displeasure over losing break time while the school informed us a student had died in a car crash. ‘I don’t care,’ I heard him tell his friends. ‘Why take our break time over it?’

It was as if he was swearing in the aisle of a transcontinental plane again, utterly pissed off at an injustice. Nate himself died in a car crash a few years after graduation.

Recounting the story of Milja’s death in my earlier post, Nate and his seemingly heartless comment was an aside, almost making him the villain. But put together with the trajectory of his life, with the fact he met a similar untimely end, he takes on a new dimension.

In my previous entry I wrote about how we select our characters and try to portray those most hurt by a situation. But I also argued for ensuring we illuminate those who help, and those who look on. We need to accept that we ourselves aren’t always the victims, and find constructive ways to react.

That’s why we shouldn’t rule out ‘unlikeable’ characters. To help examine why we need characters who aren’t just ethnically and socially diverse, but also diverse in personality, I spoke to author Helen Taylor.

Helen recently published her first novel, The Backstreets of Purgatory. Set in contemporary Glasgow with a guest appearance from the artist Caravaggio—sometimes fun, sometimes thoroughly disquieting—the novel follows Finn, a frustrated and somewhat entitled art student, as well as some of the people in his orbit.

The story unfolds through 4 points of view, including Finn’s. It’s a raucous ride, and although all the characters make mistakes that hurt each other, they are warmly portrayed. We understand that the poor decisions come from pain or insecurity. Last week, Helen provided me with insight about tempering gritty realism with compassion—and vice versa.

Question: How did you assemble this crew? Did you add or enhance some characters for balance?

Helen: Finn was the first character I had and Kassia the next. The others evolved from them (almost as a way of fleshing them out). Tuesday McLaughlin arrived and stormed on to the page, fully formed.

In the end, I chose the strongest voices for the 4 POVs. The challenge came in ordering their voices in the chapters and achieving a balance between the competing perspectives.

Question: In a way that makes sense, because Finn and Kassia are basically opposites. It’s as if they need each other to exist in fiction. Finn is the one who interacts with Caravaggio, and he catalyses change in the other characters’ lives. Is he inspired or imagined? Did you enjoy writing in his voice the most?

Helen: Finn wasn’t dissimilar to a character who starred in a short story “The Kiss” I published in The Ranfurly Review several years ago. He’s purely fictional, but the fact he has popped up twice makes me think he must be inspired by someone. Although it pains me to admit it, because Finn isn’t the most likeable character, there are elements of me in him.

Writing in Finn’s voice allowed me to explore ideas about art and mental health. As the novel progresses, Finn’s language becomes increasingly elaborate and his thinking becomes erratic with loose connections. When I wrote those sections, it was like taking a stopper out of my brain and letting the contents flow freely. It was great fun. Especially inventing words.

It was much less fun towards the end, though, as things take a dark turn. One chapter had me in tears as I wrote it.

Question: So maybe writing our characters’ weaknesses helps us come to terms with our own. Did you feel pressure to make Finn or other characters “likeable?” What aspects were added or smoothed over to make them relatable?

Helen: Rather than feeling a pressure to make my characters likeable, I felt it was important that even the most seemingly nice of them had flaws. What I did find extremely difficult was having the characters say things I wouldn’t say myself. There are a few phrases that are casually homophobic or racist for example, which make uncomfortable reading despite being said (or perhaps because they are said) as part of the “banter”. It was worse when these things were said by characters I’m fond of (Tuesday and Maurice, for example). It took effort to leave them in because I worried that readers would think they reflected my own opinion or way of speaking. It was a tough decision because, in theory, I am in control of how my characters speak and act.

As I told my mother-in-law when she complained about the swearing, “It’s my characters that swear, not me.” Although she rightly pointed out, “It was you that made them do it, Helen.”

Question: I love your perspective on ensuring characters have flaws. All your characters are vividly flawed, but Finn is particularly self-absorbed. How do people react to his character?

Helen: There are readers who don’t like him at all, and those who are exasperated yet feel sorry for him. I’ve become more protective of him as time has gone on. Yes, he can be a total prat, yes, he is conceited and yes, he behaves appallingly. But, at least at the beginning, he recognises some of his flaws and can take the micky out of himself. And I would argue that his cruellest actions arise from good intentions that go wrong because of lack of insight.

The difficult truth is that many mental health conditions can make people self-absorbed and lacking in insight or empathy. Mental illness in all its forms can make people’s behaviour unreliable, can alter their relationships, and can fuel paranoia and feelings of persecution, whether that be schizophrenia, personality disorders, bipolar disorder or depression. I speak from personal experience. We can be hard to live with.

Question: You’ve done a great job of establishing the characters’ goals, and sharpening their needs with backstory, and that really engaged me in the plot. How integral were all those dreams and affections from the start?

Helen: As soon as I’ve established the basic characteristics of the principal players, I work out what their goal is, what challenges they will face, how they will overcome them (or not) and how their personality will be changed. Although I plotted The Backstreets of Purgatory in detail before I started, the story changed as the novel progressed and the drafts were rewritten. But I always had in mind that each character had their own trajectory and that they shouldn’t — they couldn’t possibly — reach the end of the story unchanged.

I’m very grateful to Helen Taylor for talking to me about characterisation and The Backstreets of Purgatory. I thoroughly recommend the book, available from the Unbound website (and you can check out what other projects you personally might enjoy helping to get published). It’s been great fun to get behind the scenes of a good novel, and to reaffirm our right to write not-so-pleasant characters. Sometimes they’re the ones that stick with us—as Nate always has for me, and as I suspect Finn will for many.


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?

Making Hay

This Week’s Bit of String: Do the books make the town or does the town make the books?

Murder and Mayhem bookshop, with a hound painted on the front.
Check out this crime story bookshop!

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

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

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

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

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

Flowers in one of the festival courtyards
At the festival

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

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

Books for Activists, Activists for Books

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

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

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

Hearing Voices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defining Poets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kindling Magic

This Week’s Bit of String: Phoenixes and falcons

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

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

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

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

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

Harry Potter and the Approval of Twitter

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

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

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

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

Harry Potter and the Recipe for Enchantment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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