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?

Imagining What Can Save Us

This Week’s Bit of String: Miners and runaways

A hundred million years ago, according to geologists, the Southwestern region of the UK was underwater, populated by sea urchins and other such creatures. As the seas dried, the remains of those little shelled beings were compressed through extreme heat into our incredible coastal cliffs.

The same coast which Roman soldiers breached a couple thousand years ago, undoubtedly bringing with them enslaved persons from various corners of their territory. They discovered the cliffs near Beer, now a lovely seaside village in Devon, and began to quarry the stone, building arches underground to access it.

From Roman times to the 1500s, the method of extracting Beer’s pale, chalky limestone didn’t evolve much. Workers picked clear the top of a chamber, a crawlspace about 3 feet high, then climbed in and, in the cold darkness for up to 14 hours daily six days per week, they picked downward to carve blocks, 4 tonnes at a time.

When the Church ran the quarry, in the Middle Ages, they even forced miners to buy their own candles. And if a block had flint or a crack in it, the miner didn’t get paid for that day.

View through a Roman arch

These blocks, made of ancient crumbled seashells and dug out by men in harshest conditions, have been used in more than half of Britain’s cathedrals, and around the world.

I learned about Beer’s miners on a quarry tour last weekend. I wondered, how on earth could people keep living with such a laborious, unrewarding existence?

One answer, apparently, is that the miners drank lots of rough cider. And probably they were pretty friendly with each other even while deafening one another from the echo of their picks. Maybe they had nice families waiting for them at home.

But they must also have been picturing themselves somewhere else. It’s hard to imagine a life without imagining, isn’t it?

Of course, we are lucky now to access books, travel, music, and things that clue us in to alternative existences. Before all those, there still would have been storytelling and songs, there would have been starry skies and vast seas and the people who sail them. Even medieval people might have had something to distract them as they worked. Did they know about the Romans before them, and imagine proving themselves in a gladiatorial ring, marching into a hot ancient city to a hero’s welcome?

Descents of Fancy

The day after visiting Beer and its caves, we went toward Lyme Regis and looked for fossils. There’s a whole beach where the Jurassic layer has shifted from under the cliffs, creating the “Ammonite Pavement.” Vast slabs with prehistoric squid shells perfectly visible.

I used a short thin stone to pry loose part of a clay underlayer, with lots of little scallopy fossils. As I pounded the edges of my chosen rock, I imagined I was a miner with my pickaxe, providing cathedral material.

I can picture this tree lifting its roots and just shimmying down the cliff

Do other creative people sometimes imagine a tougher existence rather than a rosier one? It’s like when I was little and my sister and I pretended we were running away from a Dickensian workhouse or a slave plantation every time we packed for an overnight at Grandma’s.
By picturing ourselves in those situations, we weren’t trying to claim the suffering others went through, or minimise it. Maybe we were a little callous to inject this sort of peril to make our lives more exciting. But also, I think that spending mental time in such stories helped make us more empathetic as we grew up. Possibly, hopefully, it makes us a little less dramatic about the trials we have in our own lives.

When I chisel a fossil free, I’m just taking it home so I can glance at it occasionally, and smile remembering a sunny little adventure. It’s not going to form the grand arch of a cathedral or the dungeon stairs in the Tower of London. Those Beer miners, for all their struggles, at least were part of something great and I’m so glad their contributions are now recognised, in the Quarry tour and in our imaginations.

Building Great Things

When I think about people like those miners, or when I stand in a Remembrance Service and listen to the names read out of terrified young soldiers who died in battle, I concentrate really hard on who they might have been as humans. This is probably silly, even delusional, but I hope the waves of my empathy somehow make it back to those people. So that, for an instant, they sense they’re not forgotten.

More imagination fuel–this rose must have some magical power, right?

Obviously it’s not enough to just imagine what people’s lives were like in the past; there are people struggling now and we need to donate, amplify, and vote in ways which benefit them. I think imagining is a strong motivator though.

Our ability to imagine, and then to empathise, may set us apart as a species (although, have you ever watched a cat slink around outside? I think our feline friends have some extremely melodramatic fantasies…) but at our core we are self-interested. In order to care about someone else’s plight, it helps to picture ourselves in their stead.

In the aftermath of 2001’s terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. John Lennon’s song “Imagine” was banned from radio stations. Because if people are using their imaginations, that might not be so good for the weapons industry’s profits.

Of course, running alternate scenarios in our heads also just makes things more interesting. When I have to sit quietly with my students in their exams, I can pretend I’m actually in the Great Hall at Hogwarts taking O.W.L.S. tests. If stress is keeping me awake at night, I play a comforting memory of my Grammy’s voice. And I probably won’t use the miners of Beer in a story, because their reality feels so extreme I don’t think I could do it justice. But it’s inspiring to contemplate the many layers of history that have unfolded on the very earth beneath our feet.

What daydreams have you embarked on lately?

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?

Closing the Distance

This Week’s Bit of String: The meaning of far away

When our son was very young my husband and I had to live on different sides of the ocean. I missed him badly but couldn’t dwell on it, so when our little Bear asked about his dad, I would say, “Daddy’s far away.”

During a quick visit when Bear was two and a half, he climbed all over his dad and asked him, “Are you Far Away?”

It sounds obvious, but in my own loneliness and the frantic rush of being a single working mum, I hadn’t considered that my toddler would not understand intangible concepts such as distance. My explanation was totally inaccessible to him.

As writers, we are engaged in shrinking things. A written word is a miniature representation of its real-life counterpart; a book is a flattened, condensed episode from a collision of lives. The paradox we deal with is how to reduce things without losing a sense of their magnitude, and as readers, we know it’s possible to do just that.

Amazing, really.

With Great Power…

It’s daunting too, isn’t it? Our job is to serve up bite-sized fragments of potentially suffocating reality, to pinpoint the fleeting, and to bring distant concepts near. We greet an idea after its long flight and take it home and nestle it into bed, letting it in from the cold.

So hard to do justice.

We may feel, when the world is so vast and problem-ridden, when many of us share similar lockdown woes, that our words don’t matter. Isn’t everyone thinking the same things already? Doesn’t it reduce an issue to confine it to the page?

But we are vain as humans. We like to see our reflection. We also like to shrink things a bit so we can come to grips with it. If we find the words to resize something small enough that lots of people can access it, we’ve ended up multiplying it. A bit like if we take a trillion dollar relief package and divide it between millions of people.

Creating the Magic

To effectively do this, we have to acknowledge, within ourselves, the enormity of what we want to convey. There have to be moments when our message, when our feeling for our characters and what they’ve been through, bring us to our knees. This may take the form of us crying over our laptops, or wandering in a shell-shocked haze through our day jobs and household routines. It may be sleepless nights or nightmares. Even our for-fun stories will consume us—another paradox of writing is that by trying to portray one aspect of reality, we distance ourselves from our current one.

Magic. Part of the Window Wanderland display in Wotton-Under-Edge

Then we negotiate. We try different terms and exchanges and sequences, see which ones are most succinct yet impactful. Lay out everything you want people to know, then chisel it to a sharp point.

Part of this carving out will include an examination from every angle: have we smoothed a surface that should remain rough and challenging? Are there facets we have left too splintery? This is the part of the process where we bring in new sets of eyes to look at our work, and we check that the representation of humanity we’re offering doesn’t inadvertently exclude or minimise any marginalised groups.

It’s a tricky process but each step is essential, and when it comes together, it’s so worth it.

Ready for the Close-Up

During one long period when my husband was Far Away, we did a webcam call. Our son’s face lit up when he saw his father’s appear on the screen of my chunky monitor. “THERE’S Daddy,” he cried, as if finally things made sense. Daddy may not be where he was expected to be, but he was at last visible.

That’s the sort of recognition we want our stories to bring. Not an exact replica of a particular human being, but a sudden proximity if not familiarity. We want to stop people in their tracks, momentarily, with a Eureka moment where everything fits together and the distant becomes immediate.

In this time of prolonged isolation and separation, have you used your writing to draw closer to the far away?

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?

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?

On Time

This Week’s Bit of String: Ancient cephalopods

Southern England’s Jurassic coastline is made up of cliffs where frequent landslides expose layers of rock and clay studded, sometimes littered, with fossils. One town, Lyme Regis, has 71 noted geological strata, each with its own species of ammonite fossil.

Ammonites are now extinct, but many shells remain, similar spiral shapes to nautilus shells, but ridged. You can find them among the stones and shells and smoothed glass fragments on the beaches of Dorset and East Devon, washed down from the cliffs by the tide, or find their curls poking from clay in the slipped feet of the imposing banks.

I’m quite fascinated by these and other fossils. Prying one out is like finding something from another world. The squid-like creature that lived in this shell might have swum past ichthyosaurs, might have dodged diving pterosaurs. Around 150 million years ago, this was a warm tropical sea near the equator, formed when Pangaea started to break up. The planetary spot they occupied, according to those who study continental shift, is now the location of North Africa. So the clay we slip over, scanning for more fossils, inched up here to make room for ancient Egypt and the skill and culture of the Moors.

We’re talking a very long expanse of time here, obviously. But I love to connect these dramatic pieces and to dwell in the realms of hitherto unimagined change.

Sunrise on the South coast

This past week I brought my little family, our bubble of three, to the Jurassic Coast and we stayed in a cottage to celebrate my 40th birthday there. I’d long intended to spend this milestone with my whole family in the USA, to party with them for the first time since I turned 23. But that, and Plans B, C, even D didn’t work out, for obvious reasons. Still: I partied, in my own way, by digging in slimy clay, hiking up cliffs in horizontal rain, drinking by the fire with the Lord of the Rings films on (extended versions of course), and sitting on the living room floor playing Monopoly while eating pizza as if at a childhood sleepover.

Sifting Through the Strata

Every life gathers its own layers, detritus packed into sediment, relics peeking from ooze washed down in a storm. When an event shakes us we might discover long-dead remains different in shape to the parts of us now evolved.

As I approached my twentieth birthday, the thought that I could live four times as long depressed me. I felt I’d done enough damage, would only end up dragging everyone down with me. That wasn’t quite the last time I felt that way, but it has been a while, layers of having a kid to adore and a marriage to make thrive and various jobs to pour my energies into and stories to create—these have buried earlier strata which might contain curled, spiny, hard-shelled relics of self-loathing.

One of my biggest finds, fossils upon fossils

You don’t go digging at the bases of the cliffs and you have to watch out for landslides. But if a fragment gets washed out, we might give it a little scrub and find that it has a certain intrigue or even beauty. Remembering what despair feels like is pretty useful for a writer.

This year the stories I’ve most loved writing, and reading when they’re done, are ones featuring children, their belief in magic juxtaposed with intolerance for untruth. I guess that’s what the pandemic and its many separations and fears have shaken loose from me.

I had one character, a teenage skeptic, reply when asked about her goals: “I’m going to refurbish an abandoned shed and call it Burnt Sienna. I’ll live there and do art with a puppy named Periwinkle and a pygmy goat named Ochre.” Sounds appealing, right?

Counting Every Moment

On Halloween, my husband and I watched the Netflix remake of Rebecca. He did a bit of research on the story’s author Daphne de Maurier and informed me Rebecca was her third novel, published while she was 30.

Impressive, we agreed. But then I thought, I’m turning 40 and I’ve written 3 novels. Those were written while working full-time and while being my family’s everything—no nannies or household staff or even local relations. That’s kind of impressive too, and helps me make peace with getting older.

I’ve now been alive for a longer period than the one which separated World War II from my birth. I’ve known my husband for just over half my life. Time is such a funny thing, the weight of it fluctuating vastly depending on what we’re measuring it against. It’s the same with accomplishments; they’ll look more satisfactory from different perspectives.

Not that we want to get too satisfied with ourselves. I was thinking as I pried at prehistoric remains with a stick of driftwood, my face wind-raw and hands clay-chapped, my shoes carrying an extra gallon of water from getting caught in 8-foot swells, “This isn’t meant to be easy, that’s the pride of it.” And even when I managed to free a fragment, when I rinsed it in the frothy waves and was thrilled by the sharp ridges and tight coils revealed, I still didn’t want to stop. It’s like when you write a good story, you still want to dig up a new one and see if it might be even better.

Maybe the best we can wish for, as time passes, is to maintain a desire for more of it. I hope that whatever this year has shaken from the cliffs around you proves useful in your writing, and that you’ve got the strength to keep seeking new challenges.

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?

Never Empty

This Week’s Bit of String: The talking shadow

“In Mario,” My eight-year-old used his customary conversation starter, “sometimes there’s a little guy who follows you around and tells you stuff.”

I paused while fixing dinner. “I’ve got one of those, too.”

“What? No, not like that.” He grinned though. He knew I meant him. With strict limitations on time spent actually playing Mario, he spent a good deal of time talking to me about it, and about other things. Every walk, every errand, every chore and the many, various games and endeavours we engaged in happened to the soundtrack of him recounting playground exploits, giving his musical opinions, or providing play-by-play narrative of races.

I don’t recall the name of this Mario character, but I remember my son’s feet on the grey, slate-style kitchen floor as he told me about The Little Guy Who Follows You Around and Tells You Stuff. My son has very long, thin feet to match his long, thin body, and they taper into pointy heels so I’ve always called them “triangle rabbit’s feet.”

Finding Out Stuff

Maybe this particular exchange stayed with me for over a decade not just because of its representation of our relationship but because it echoed a certain idea of a muse. We have this conception when we start out as writers that inspiration is a separate entity leading us, drawing our attention to useful material. Even if we don’t consciously admit to that expectation, I think it’s there.

Those feet right there.

The word Muse, though, originates from an ancient word for “to think.” As writers, we have to be vigilant for ideas, and spend the time and mental energy refining them into art. There’s no constant chaperone or information source.

Same with parenting. There’s not a single point where your kid decides whether to keep talking to you. There are many little moments which will create a lasting impression. I’d hate for my son to think I didn’t like him telling me stuff, so I took interest, though I couldn’t take in every single thing. I became the Little Mum Who Checks in Regularly and Listens to Stuff. It worked pretty well.

Claim Versus Connection

My sister told me, after a brief stop at home in my freshman year at college, that my mother cried as she put my cup away. This seemed silly at the time. I’d lived away that whole summer for my job, before leaving for university. Why make a fuss now? With the excessive knowledge of a 17-year-old, I thought my mother was making an unjust claim over me. I didn’t belong to her anymore.

Now I’ve just taken my son to university. I won’t have him telling me stuff, although hopefully regular texts will continue. Beyond pandemics, lockdowns, economic depressions, and food shortages (you know, what everyone stresses about now), I’m not too worried about him. He is eager to start his primary teaching course, and excited about the different people he’ll meet.

He’s shown perseverance and talent to get where he is. I’ve never allowed myself to say I’m proud of him because even if I’ve guided and supported, he’s made his own choices and committed to growth. I can’t claim credit for his achievements.

I miss him so much, though. Him following me around telling me stuff was a privilege I enjoyed for all of my adult life, and I can see now that my mother, the most selfless person on earth, wasn’t crying over a lost claim but because from an overstretched connection.

Babies and Books

I’ve written before about how Books Aren’t Babies. We should boldly send them into the world, because submitting our writing is less scary than relinquishing our children. Less sad, too. But our creative endeavours and our progeny both come down to connection rather than ownership.

Have we made space and time for our writing, have we listened to its essence and then, ultimately, let it unfold as needed? Even when we’re lucky enough to get pieces published, as I was in two recent online literary magazines (this Kafka parody and this personal essay), we’ll always look at our creation with agonised love, wondering, “Did I do enough?”

Rabbity little triangles.

Nothing can be enough for something we can’t get enough of. I had 6 months working from home with my 18-year-old also locked down. I’m so glad that for one of the first times in his life, we got to visit with each other for three meals per day. Didn’t make it easier to drive away from that uni without him, though. I watched the houses go by and felt ragingly envious of all their inhabitants now in closer proximity to my favourite young human than I am.

I believe there’s only full-time parenting or writing, no other way truly exists. Both are consuming. Parents spending all day with their kids show incredible perseverance. For those of us with extra jobs, our hearts also are with our kids and our minds keep pivoting there as well. Frequent interruptions, every spare minute devoted to family-centred errands and admin work, every reminder of someone else’s children aching the chest. Just as we scout constantly for writing-related inspiration and lessons while at the workplace, we’re also tuned in to anything that will deepen our connection with our children.

The perk of this exhausting triple life? Souls this full of love are never empty. I’ve tried to rest my brain from writing sometimes, but ideas push through. I need to write just as I need to know my son is okay, and fulfilling his goals.

On the eve of his departure, surrounded by full bags and boxes, my son asked me, “Are you happy with all we got done today?” I said I was. We’d worked hard. Only his computer and gadgets—Mario games, for example—to pack the following day.

“Then that’s good enough for me,” he said. Another sweet little exchange marking sharp-heeled prints over my full heart.