Just to say…

Emma-Viskic-–-Resurrection-Bay-172x276

Sending love and good wishes to Emma Viskic, whose debut novel: Resurrection Bay is shortlisted for TWO prestigious CWA Daggers:

CWA Gold Dagger

Clever, funny and totally deserving of the plaudits engulfing this antipodean début. Vividly persuasive characters along with fast-paced, gut-wrenching twists leave the reader craving for the next instalment — Judging Panel, CWA Gold Dagger 2018 Shortlist

CWA New Blood Dagger

Set in a beautifully evoked Australia […] Exemplary and humane and full of deeply felt anxiety’ — Judging Panel, CWA New Blood Dagger 2018 Shortlist

Matt Sumell – on Why Writing is So Hard and How to Write Anyway

Making Nice UK coverUp on Publishers Weekly, Matt Sumell’s piece on Why Writing is So Hard (March 13th) speaks to my inner critic – how do you switch her off? Should I lock her in a cupboard? Sumell skates across American male approaches to writing – Hawthrone, Hemingway, Thompson, Michael Herr’s Dispatches, Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, – a nod to a couple of women would have widened out his thinking – but this is his experience and it’s insightful and true about the difficulties of writing through yourself.

with writing there’s no formula that makes sense to me, no recipe to follow, no map—at least no map I know how to read—to help me navigate. Every story is different, and every story comes with its own specific difficulties, so every story also comes with its own specific anxiety and panic until it’s done. Only—as they say—it’s never done, just abandoned.

The article coincides with publication of Sumell’s “novel-in-stories” Making Nice (Harvil Secker [UK]; Henry Holt [US]). Publishers Weekly think

it’s one of the funniest (and best) books of the year, featuring the self-destructive but well-meaning Alby–a “loser,” according to his sister.Making Nice cover

Good enough praise for it to slip into the tbr pile

>>Link to full article on PW Why Writing is So Hard

Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers

US cover
US cover

Around five books in the last year have drawn me up short and made me think about narrative and storylines and the possibilities of literature and form. Last week I was running late for a train at Waverley without a book for the trip to Glasgow (around 40mins) and I nipped into the newsagent and, without thinking, other than to note it was only £7.99 for the paperback, I picked up The Flamethrowers. I haven’t read Kushner’s first novel or other writing and, although I’d heard the fuss about the book last year and knew critics on both sides of the Atlantic had raved about it, I hadn’t really paid too much attention to it.

I wish I had.

I wish I could wind back to last August when I passed on a ticket to go and listen to her talk at the Edinburgh book festival. I’ve wasted a whole year when I could have been thinking about this writing.

It’s engaging and feisty; brimming with so many ideas that it hurts to read it. My copy is so well-thumbed I need a new copy. I carry it everywhere. I read out parts to Mr Bookrambler, who is not into literary fiction, but I needed to share the joy of intelligent writing with someone. I stop in the street and re-read paragraphs and sentences. I have to get up at night to re-read long passages.

It’s exhilarating to find bold writing. It’s been called ‘muscular’ and the new American novel, which is somehow ‘novel’ as it’s written by a woman. Yet it is novel. It is an important book.

There’s no getting away from the feminist aspects of the story. Reno – the protagonist is named by others from a place connection; we never hear her real name. There are long sections which she narrates but where she is passive and never speaks. A large part of the joy of the writing is in her deliberate passivisity (sp?). She chooses to be passive and to allow others to direct her actions, not because she’s weak but because she’s bold and self-willed.

In summary (woefully inadequate) but the jist of it: the story opens in third person past tense. It’s 1917 and an Italian rider named Valera fights a German soldier. The narrative then switches to present tense, to the 1970s and the narration of an unnamed woman who is riding a Valera motorcycle to the salt flats to a time trial, or so she tells the young man called Stretch who offers her his bed for the night. It’s only partially true. She’s also going to film and photograph her tyre tracks as part of an art project she hopes to pull together. However, she chooses not to impart this information to the young man because it isn’t the story he should expect or have of her.

The way in which Valera/Valera motorcycle intersect is integral to the way the story unfolds and it would spoil its unfolding to say too much.

Patti Smith NY (c.) Lynn Goldsmith, 1976
Patti Smith NY
(c.) Lynn Goldsmith, 1976

Throughout the novel, Time and History intersect and move apart, push off against each other and create new presents, new realities. Reno is constructed by the men around her (mostly men but women too) and by herself and the idea she has of how she thinks she ought to be. She has moved to New York to be where things happen.

Something would happen, I was sure. A job, which I needed, but that could isolate a person even further. No. Some kind of event. “Tonight is the night,” I later believed I’d told myself on that particular night when I heard the music and Nina Simone’s voice, walked into the bar on Fourteenth Street, and met the people with the gun. But in truth I had not told myself anything. I had simply left my apartment to stroll, as I did every night. What occurred did so because I was open to it, and not because fate and I met at a certain angle. I had plenty of time to think about this later. I thought about it so much that the events of that evening sometimes ran along under my mood like a secret river, in the way that all buried truths rushed along quietly in some hidden place.

 

Time too is constructed and how we perceive history is interrogated by the storyline. Italian history intersects with the 1970 anti-capitalist riots in New York and with art and creativity.

But it’s also about a girl growing up and growing into herself.

I really can’t implore you more to read The Flamethrowers. Both readers and writers will find their idea of what is possible with literature altered by the experience of reading it.

Rachel Kushner’s website has links to interviews that give (or gave me) helpful insight into the book. See especially the frank and wide ranging interview on process and cultural memory with Dana Spiotta on Tin House.

The Flamethrowers is on the terrific longlist for the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize

Tartt[an] Bookishness

Donna Tartt (c. LittleBrownsite)If I was Donna Tartt and I was in Edinburgh for one night, and I’d playfully mentioned ‘Potter’ in my latest novel, I’d stay in the Balmoral Hotel on Princes Street, in the room where JK Rowling completed the final pages of the Harry Potter series. It’s not as fanciful as it seems. Unlike the cold persona she puts out – few interviews – professional photo shoots in an array of serious poses – no blogging or tweeting or facebooking – Donna Tartt is engaging, delightful, entertaining and really rather lovely to listen to for an hour on a grey November night.240px-Balmoral_Hotel

She came on in a bit of a rush, like a rock goddess whooshing through the corridor on the way to an event. Draped in a jaunty tartan scarf (which I’ll come back to later), DT enthused about art, about literature, about the trickery of artifice and how to deceive with truth. She was very good. And it was so appropriate to sit in the nave of a converted church, listening to her evangelise about writing – a religious spectacle where DT explained her reverence for the act of writing as a spiritual act as a form of spiritual connectedness between writer and subject, writer and reader – they [we] engage in a soul exchange; literature is the only medium, she said, where we enter another person and see what they see, feel what they feel, know what they know.

It was enthralling. I have to admit that this year’s literary events have seemed to me to be a bit jaded, as if the writers I’d listened to had dragged themselves out to speak to us because they had to, it was just another part of their job. I didn’t get that at all last night from Donna Tartt. For the first time in a long time (Margaret Atwood and Edna O’Brien excepted) I felt I was listening to a writer who really cared about her art as art, not just as a means of making a living; as if she wanted to make us care, searching for the right word, the exact metaphor to explain or describe what she was attempting to do in The Goldfinch and in her writing.

The Goldfinch is the best book I’ve read this year. Everything about it is perfect: characterisation, narrative drive, pacing, dialogue, cultural references, setting – it’s a superb achievement and well worth the eleven years it took to bring it into print. I only finished reading it a couple of nights ago and I’m still in that ‘it’s a great book’ phase you get after reading a great book and I have nothing to say about it, except telling everyone ‘it’s a great book’. (I’ll try and write something more meaningful by the end of the year.)
Goldfinch cover (c.) LittleBrown

On the tartan – when she came in draped in a tartan scarf and laughing about buying a vintage kilt, I was disappointed. Typical, I thought, an American coming to Scotland thinking that tartanry is our culture and we’d love her for ‘joining in’. Oh I was wrong – happily. She explained, when I asked about it at the book signing, that it was a bit of fun – she knew it was all phoney but she was passing the vintage tartan shop on the Royal Mile (that shop and the one down the Grassmarket are tourist magnets) and felt a piece of tartan from there was appropriate to the idea of fakery and authenticity in The Goldfinch. She was right, I do love her for buying it because she understands (more than many Scots) about the fakery we accept as our past.

On Writing: Crumbs from the Tartt table

  • DT has kept a writing notebook for decades, she owns piles of them where she writes snippets of conversations, descriptions, ‘bits and pieces of the mind’, she said, quoting Didion
  • she writes and writes to hone her talent, as a pianist or a dancer, writing yards to get a sentence just right
  • DT builds her scenes through small brushstrokes to perfect the texture of a character and a scene, building them up and going over and over, adding little telling details to bring them to life; make them authentic
  • there’s a little bit of every writer in all their characters – which is not the same as saying ‘it’s about themselves’ (which is reductive)
  • the opening of The Goldfinch is deliberately leisurely – like Hitchcock, DT builds the tension by looking away from the moment of high drama that’s just around the corner, drawing the reader in with lengthy description, exposition and dialogue
  • writers should write for themselves
  • there’s no ‘readership’ to write for but an ideal reader – one true person who ‘gets’ what you’re trying to say
  • tragedy, cruelty, horror and outrage are ‘sweetened’ by the act of writing – it can be cathartic for both the writer and the reader

**With thanks to Waterstones and Little Brown for bringing Donna Tartt up to Edinburgh and hosting a highly enjoyable evening.

*** Isabel Costello has reviewed both The Goldfinch and the London event on The Literary Sofa  << well worth a read

 

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A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the Time BeingA Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki (Canongate)

A tiny sparkle caught Ruth’s eye, a small glint of refracted sunlight angling out from beneath a massive tangle of drying bull kelp, which the sea had heaved up onto the sand at full tide. She mistook it for the sheen of a dying jellyfish and almost walked right by it. The beaches were overrun with jellyfish these days, the monstrous red stinging kind that looked like wounds along the shoreline.

From barnacle-encrusted jetsam that washes up on a beach in Desolation Sound, British Columbia, Ruth Ozeki weaves together a highly innovative tale about time and the self. Ruth the narrator, like Ozeki (is Ozeki), is an American writer with Japanese ancestry; a novelist. For ten years Ruth has worked on a memoir which she began as a way to record both her mother’s decline into Alzheimer’s and also “her own feelings and reactions”. Suffering from writer’s block and unable to contemplate reading over what she has written to “consolidate the structure” of the “ungainly heap” she turns to the diary inside the Hello Kitty lunch-box she has found on the beach.

Ruth goes in search of sixteen-year old Nao, both in the literal purple prose of the handwritten diary and online for traces of evidence that she was a ‘real’ person. She looks everywhere and anywhere across time where Nao has left her mark. So far, so normal.

What raises this novel from good to dazzling is the way that Ozeki draws attention to the creative process and blurs the division between teller and tale, reader and writer. Ruth the novelist writes a tale about a novelist-turned-memoirist called Ruth who turns from writing herself into being to reading another self into being – that of a teenager called Nao (pronounced Now) who has written herself and her great-grandmother into being – and the whole is written into existence by Ruth (the narrator) who annotates the tale. At a further step, Ozeki as creator brings the reader into existence to read a tale formed out of the “gyre memory” of oceanic drift.

If all of this sounds pretentious it most definitely is not. A Tale for the Time Being is highly engaging, thoughtful rather than didactic. Nao’s diary is concealed within the covers of a “hacked” copy of In Search of Lost Time. Alongside her record of peer-bullying, a depressed father and decent to the darker side of life (she writes her diary in a “French” café in ElectricTown, Tokyo) she relates part of her great-grandmother’s autobiography. Jiko is a 104 year old feminist–radical-Buddhist nun who lives in a remote temple. Nao visits her for part of the novel and gains insight and solace but not enlightenment. Back at home her life is still tortuous. Also within Nao’s diary are pages from a family “secret French diary”: stories within stories.

Strong narrative voices add authenticity to the parallel narratives. Nao’s forced jollity grates at times, after all, there’s only so much teen angst anyone can take.

I had to look on the bright side and try to make the best of things. At least Dad hadn’t hijacked the bus and driven it off the side of the mountain. At least he was still here with me, and maybe- maybe he wouldn’t leave. Maybe I could do something to make him stay. Because even though he promised to come back and pick me up at the end of my vacation and take me to Disneyland, what if he didn’t? What if the special doctors couldn’t fix him? Or what if, on the way home, the urge to die got too intense, and he suddenly had to hurl himself onto the tracks in front of the oncoming Disneyland Super Express? He didn’t really care about shaking hands with Mickey-chan after all.

Ozeki peels back the emoticons and exclamatory tone and injects pathos and compels us to sympathise with Nao as much as we want to tell her to take it down a notch or two. Ruth adds scholarly footnotes to Nao’s diary where she explains references to complex theories, unfamiliar concepts and contextual material (quantum physics, Zen Buddhism, WWII kamikaze pilots) and these are further cross-referenced to appendices that expand on specific topics, such as Schrödinger’s cat and Hugh Everett’s theory of “many worlds”. The effect of Ruth’s writing in the margins of Nao’s diary draws attention to both the tale and its telling.

An outsider in Whaletown, a “spectre of the past” (“whales are time beings”), Ruth shares a wooden house outside of town with her ecologically-aware husband Oliver, who teaches permaculture. Oliver considers that the lunch-box has probably broken off from one of the “eleven great planetary gyres”, a “drifter” from the wreckage of the Japanese tsunami. In the forest, he observes “time unfolding … history embedded in the whorls and fractal forms of nature”.

Anticipating the effects of global warming on the native trees, he was working to create a climate-change forest on a hundred acres of clear-cut … He planted groves of ancient natives- metasequoia, giant sequoia, coast redwoods, Juglans, Ulmus, and ginkgo- species that had been indigenous to the area during the Eocene Thermal Maximum, some 55 million years ago.

Through Oliver’s battles against misinformation and fierce local opposition to his planting scheme Ozeki examines the connectedness of life across time. On a trip to a secret clam garden they consider the irony of “native” Pacific oysters, which originated from Japan: “ ‘You used to be able to walk barefoot on the beaches’ ”, Oliver says, as they look over a landscape of razor-sharp oyster shells, and Ruth wonders “when the last oyster was harvested in the beds around Manhattan ”.

A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be …

You wonder about me.

I wonder about you.

Who are you and what are you doing?

What are you doing now?

I have only scratched the surface of this heartbreaking, uplifting novel. A Tale for the Time Being is a testament to the power of words – a tale whose ideas and characters resonate long after the final page.

Note -I read the paperback version which comes with a ‘fully interactive paperback jacket’. It’s also available in a hardback and eBook bundle.

Do check out Ruth Ozeki’s website: Ozekieland – webworld, for more details and information.

A Tale for the Time Being is on the shortlist of the 2013 ManBooker Prize, announced tonight (Tuesday) – I do hope she wins.

[reposted from EarthLines Review]

Maj Sjöwall at the Edinburgh Int. Book Festival

I’m reposting my piece on the Martin Beck series because this afternoon Maj Sjöwall is visiting EIBF for the very first time. I wrote about seven out of the ten books although I finished the series and re-read them last year. What I love about them is the incremental way the characters develop within the context of historical detailing so that I found myself looking out for individuals and thinking, where’s Beck, where’s Larsson, as if they were real, as if the situation was real, as if they could do something real. Writing one book is highly satisfying, but what Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö achieved with the whole series is a towering accomplishment: the Martin Beck Series is a masterpiece.

[repost] This series of crime books are police procedurals set in Sweden; a Decalogue of crime books by the Swedish writers, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Subtitled, The Story of a Crime, Sjöwall and Wahlöö set out to show that ‘under the official image of welfare-state Sweden there was another layer where poverty, criminality and brutality existed beneath the glossy surface.’ The characters develop from book to book, adopting new characteristics and habits, or deepening collegial relationships. These are tightly plotted police procedurals that follow the investigation from grisly discovery to final solution. Each one is completely different and yet the same. Each one follows the same characters uncovering secrets and following dead-ends, but each too uncovers another aspect of the characters, develops Beck’s personal life, and reveals how Swedish society is sliding away from the welfare ideal.

Each of the books is its own individual story but I probably wouldn’t have read beyond Roseanna if I hadn’t received the first three together from ‘InsideBooks’. Roseanna builds slowly, plodding procedurally from the discovery of a woman’s body to resolution of the crime. Looking back at the first in the series from where I am now with no. 7: The Abominable Man, it takes on a whole new aspect. The characters, the murder squad, their families and relationships are introduced but not fully formed. In fact, they’re not all there yet. It’s clear, though, that this isn’t just about Beck but about his team and the individual characters. Lennart Kollberg, Frederik Melander, Gunnar Ahlberg, Gunvald Larsson, Einar Ronn, and the comic double act of Kristiansson and Kvant, all play important individual and integral roles in various novels in the series. Some, like Beck and Kollberg feature in them all, while others, like Gunvald Larsson aren’t introduced until no. 3. Åke Stenström is an important character, both for his own sake and for introducing his wife to the group.

The setting plays a crucial role in each of the novels, while the period detailing enables Sjöwall and Wahlöö to inject cutting social commentary. For example, mention of a Vientamese tourist in Roseanna is a not too subtle reminder of international politics. Christmas, for the Marxist authors, is like the ‘Black Death’, the consumer ‘epidemic swept all before it and there was no escape. It ate its way into houses and flats, poisoning and breaking down everything and everyone in its path… The gigantic legalized confidence trick claimed victims everywhere’ (The Laughing Policeman, p. 119).

In discussing how they planned the series, Sjöwall and Wahlöö describe how they wrote the books one at a time, each writing a chapter after the other. Writing one book on your own is hard, so how much planning must have gone into deciding who would write which scene, what to leave out and what to add, when to change a character (as Beck does in no. 6, Murder at the Savoy) without alienating the reader? There’s also the stringent planning and organisation of material; sorting out the intricate details for ten interconnected books is a feat of great ingenuity. The Martin Beck series is, rightly, an acclaimed landmark in European crime fiction. Here’s a link to an interview with Maj Sjöwall inThe Observer, November 2009.

Originally published in Sweden in the 1960s and early 70s, the edition I’m reading through is reprinted by Harper Perennial (2006-07) from English translations (of mixed success, I hate to report), with an introduced to each provided by a contemporary crime writer, such as Colin Dexter, Val McDermid, and Henning Mankell, who introduces the first, Roseanna.

Martin Beck Series, No 1: Roseanna (1965)

“On a July afternoon, the body of a young woman is dredged from beautiful Lake Vatern”.

The first book of the series is slowly paced but skilfully plotted. The investigation into the brutal rape and murder of Roseanna McGraw stutters from dead-end to dead-end until a final flurry of activity in the closing chapters brings a resolution. In this first book we are introduced to Martin Beck and the team of detectives and to the Swedish landscape and society.

Martin Beck Series, No. 2, The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (1966)

Beck travels to Prague to track down a missing journalist. Alone and abroad, he muses on his failing marriage. A moody, broody book that builds Beck’s character.

Martin Beck Series, No. 3, The Man on the Balcony (1967)

An uncomfortable and disconcerting read. Someone is attacking and killing young girls in Stockholm and leaving their bodies in “once-peaceful parks”. No. 3 is when the detective characters begin to gel as a team and Larsson is introduced to upset the balance.  Kristiansson and Kvant bring comic relief to a very dark tale.

Martin Beck Series, No. 4, The Laughing Policeman (1968)

Someone murders eight people on a Stockholm bus, including one of Beck’s team. For me, this is where the whole series begins to make sense. If you get this far, read the first one again. What strikes is Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s restraint. They hold back so much from the first three which makes the action of the fourth so affecting and effective. Brilliantly done. The Vietnam War looms again in anti-war protests while Beck’s character deepens at the same time as his relationship with Kollberg and Larsson intensifies.

Martin Beck Series, No. 5, The Fire Engine that Disappeared (1969)

Larsson takes centre stage as hero in a house-fire; there’s a double meaning to the Fire Engine and black-marketeering; social injustice and politicalisation of the police add to the mix to give one of the best plotted books of the series. The action moves from Stockholm to Malmö. Incisive social commentary cuts through the fiction:

“Students put on their white caps and trade union leaders get their red flags out from the moth-balls and try to remember the text of Sons of Labour. It will soon be May Day and time to pretend to be socialist for a short while again, and during the symbolic demonstration march even the police stand to attention when the brass bands play the Internationale. For the only tasks the police have are the redirection of traffic and ensuring that no-one spits on the American flag, or that no one who really wants to say anything has got in amongst the demonstrators.” (pp. 182-83)

Martin Beck Series, No. 5, Murder at the Savoy (1970)

Again set between Stockholm and Malmö. The murder of a businessman during his after-dinner speech at an hotel takes Beck and Larsson into an investigation of seedy corruption. We learn more of Larsson’s background, while Beck lightens up. Kristiansson and Kvant are their usual bumbling inept selves – it’s their unprofessional actions that hinder the whole investigation.

No. 7, The Abominable Man (1971).

Originally published by consistently in print and, as the latest version by Fourth Estate screams from the front cover – with over ten million copies sold worldwide – it’s not hard to see why.

Vintage edition earlier this year [2012]

 

Book Review -Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

US ed. LifeAfterLifeLife After Life cover image“One wonders about the divine plan and so on.”

“More of a shambles than a plan,” Ursula agreed.

What if you could live your life again? What if you could revisit those small moments when seemingly inconsequential decisions led you down the wrong path. What if you were given the opportunity to live your life over and over again and again … until you got it right?

This is the premise behind Kate Atkinson’s widely lauded new book, Life After Life. It begins with a scene in a cafe in November 1930. A woman draws out “her father’s old service revolver from the Great War” and takes aim. The narrative leads away from and up to this point. Ursula Todd is born, dies and is reborn. Again and again from 11 February 1910 to 11 February 1910, Ursula Todd lives and dies over and over. She lives through the ‘Great War’, the inter-war years, the blitz, post-war rationing, the misery and tedium of an abusive marriage, Germany in the 1930s. She lives right up to retirement from the civil service in 1967 until she finally has the strength of will to carry out the deed she comes to realise she is born to do.

For me, three things stand out:

1- three-dimensional characters whose names and lives evoke the time periods they live through – names, such as, Ursula, Teddy, Sylvie, Hugh, Izzie, Bridget the housekeeper and Mrs Haddock the midwife- even Maurice is a name perfectly suited to the brother whom no one likes. They live and breath each era through the particularity of things, from the idea of Englishness in the family home, “Fox Corner”, “jam roly poly and custard” for pudding, “a Radiant” gas fire, “Sam Brown … singing ‘The Sun Has Got His Hat On’ “, “a good woollen frock for eight pounds”, a solitary supper of “Welsh rarebit – off a tray on her knee” , the blitz:

a figure in the dark who went with her as far as Hyde Park. Before the war you would never have dreamed of hooking arms with a complete stranger – particularly a man – but now the danger from the skies seemed much greater than anything that could befall you from this odd intimacy.

2- rich with descriptive imagery and quotations from (amongst many) Shakespeare, Donne, Marvell, and Stevenson, that add texture and philosophical depth to the story. “the headache that had begun before dinner as a dull ache was a crown of thorns by now”, “Ursula’s lungs felt as if they were full of custard, she imagined it thick and yellow and sweet”. Miss Woolf, the leader of a London air-warden rescue group, midst the horror of the blitz looks beyond the war, and wonders about “how much German music we listen to” which leads her to conclude that “great beauty transcends all.” Ursula reflects on life, her life, and the meaning of life.

A buttery, unseasonal sun was trying hard to nudge its way through the thick velvet curtains. Why dost though thus,/Through windows, and through curtains, call on us? she thought. If she could go back in time and take a lover from history it would be Donne. Not Keats, the knowledge of his untimely death would colour everything quite wretchedly. That was the problem with time travel, of course (apart from the impossibility)- one would always be a Cassandra, spreading doom with one’s foreknowledge of events. It was quite wearyingly relentless but the only way that one could go was forward.

3. a complex yet soothing narrative structure. I normally can’t follow stories that rely on flash back and dual or parallel stories – I get bored when structure gets in the way of story, but the way Life After Life is constructed is very readable, easy to follow, compelling and yet highly complex. The structure is the story. The story returns again and again to November 1910 so that it becomes a touchstone. We know that life begins again for Ursula, that she will have the chance to live past the event which closed her immediate past life -that moment when “the black bat unfolded his wings”, “when darkness falls” is not an ending but a beginning. Atkinson leads us through the story with dated chapter headings and section titles, such as,”A Lovely Day Tomorrow” and “Armistice”, “A Long Hard War” and “The End of the Beginning”, and these act as flagposts to the way the story develops and prevents us from getting lost in the circular story.

Life After Life is really good. It’s a story to return to as a writer as well as a reader – to learn from as well as to enjoy.

Become such as you are, having learned what is

… Life wasn’t about becoming was it? It was about being.

Life After Life is out now everywhere- Kate Atkinson’s website is the best place to find details of how and where to buy a copy.

She’s got a very interesting Pinterest for Life After Life on the go that’s worth a look too.

Quilt, by Nicholas Royle

Quilt by Nicholas Royle (Myriad Editions)

[ – an open letter of appreciation -]

Dear Professor Royle

I’d like to apologise for not paying attention in class. Had I done so, I would be able to appreciate your debut novel, Quilt. It’s a story about death and grief and ghosts and Socrates and stingrays – I think. I find myself unable to review it or talk about it coherently, knowledgeably. I know I really enjoyed reading it – I love the playfulness and energy and above all, the serious purposefulness of the prose. The imagery made me laugh out loud and to nod in agreement at the connections you made. I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you why, I don’t have the language to properly express what is so good about this book or why I tell everyone I know that they must read it – it will change their view of literature, of story-telling, of writing.

You won’t remember me – one of eight that dwindled to six in your Wallace Stevens seminar in the spring (or was it autumn?) of 1995 (or was it 1994?) at Stirling. Ten weeks of intensive study of one American poet – what luxury now!; spoilt we were but we didn’t know it. We began in earnest we eight. After week one we started to loiter in the café for longer than the allotted ten minute break. It seemed to make sense to extend the time  – to draw breath – for relief after the tortuous first hour. ‘What is this poem about – do you think?’ you asked – dropped it into the seminar where we looked at each other, the desk, out at the solitary tree in the courtyard, which now I can’t recall whether it was bare or in full leaf, anywhere; we looked, but at the page, at you. We worked together, we eight become six, to ‘get through’ our Wallace ‘bloody’ Stevens Honours course.

I can’t get back time once it’s gone, can I? Once glimpsed, once I recognised the peacock/poem [for he was a peacock, not a stingray] sliding around the corner – he came into full view, there, concrete and real – just that one time. The peacock/poem in full focus – bare, literal. And then the devastating truth – this reality was a lie! A trick of the individual imagination. There is no single meaning, you helped us to understand. We see the peacock/poem, but in our own image. That same moment re-run won’t bring the same peacock/poem back into focus. He is a ghost – or the past calling the future. Did he telephone ahead to tell us he was coming?

Uncanny, is poetry – as all language. I think.

Kind regards

Janette

Q&A with Jane Rusbridge – author of Rook (Bloomsbury Circus)

Jane Rusbridge

is an Associate lecturer of creative writing at ChichesterUniversity. Her first novel, The Devil’s Music, was published to critical acclaim in 2009 and was Longlisted for the 2011 International IMPAC Literary Award. Rook is her second novel and one of six titles published this year under the new Bloomsbury Circus imprint.

Q: Music plays a central role in Rook. It’s used to great effect to create atmosphere and it gives an, at times, hypnotic rhythm to the language. In building Nora’s character, why did you decide that her chosen instrument was a cello, rather than, say, a violin or a piano?

JR: The answer to this question reveals something of the randomness and chance involved in my creative process, so I’m glad you asked it.

I knew nothing much about the cello before I wrote Rook. I play the piano, so Nora was going to be a pianist until a chance comment changed my mind. The conversation was about music, the way it speaks directly to the human brain, and someone mentioned that a cello produces the sound closest to the human voice. My ideas for the novel already involved the telling of untold stories, and with that remark something clicked: Nora was a cellist. The decision was that sudden, certain but not at all logical, since even now I don’t know if the statement is accurate.

Q: The setting of Rook is a tightly knit community, in the same area as your first novel, The Devil’s Music. Can you explain what captivates you about the seascapes of West Sussex?

JR: I’ve been reading Simon Schama’s book on landscape and memory. He says ‘landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery built up as much from the strata of memory as from layers of rock’. And yesterday I learned that the word ‘landscaef’, brought to Britain by Anglo Saxon settlers, meant a clearing in the forest with animals, huts, fields and fences – a place carved out of the wilderness. A place made ‘home’.

My attachment to the seascapes of Sussex is rooted in my childhood and closely bound to my sense of identity. I grew up in Bexhill, East Sussex, where we had a beach hut. Often we’d be there in all weathers, from breakfast until bedtime, and my childhood memories are mostly of being outside, barefoot; of running on pebbles, climbing breakwaters, exploring rock pools, building huge sandcastles with crowds of other children. For me, memories of Sussex beaches are associated with pleasure in the freedom, tempered with safety in familiarity.

Looking back, I’d hazard a guess that’s why, as I began writing my first novel, The Devil’s Music, when everything about the process was unfamiliar and new, I chose to set it on a Sussex beach. Rook ventures a little further inland, along a creek path, across wheat fields. With novel 3, I’m getting adventurous, since it looks as though it might be set in forests on the Downs, and away from the sea.

Q: The story of modern life is interlaced with facts about archaeological digs and historical places and figures, such as the Saxon church at Bosham, King Canute and King Harold, mixed together with legend and scenes from the Bayeux Tapestry. How long did you spend researching the background to the story?

JR: There were a few weeks of intense research near the start of the writing process, when I read church archives and made copious notes. The church archivist took me up the Saxon bell tower, unlocked cupboards and drawers filled with papers, and put into my hand a piece of stone from the coffin thought to belong to a daughter of King Cnut. I read about historical artefacts found in the mud around ChichesterHarbour and the history of the Godwin family; squelched around on the foreshore of Bosham creek; visited The Anchor Bleu and bought ice-cream from the van on the foreshore. It takes a while to discover how or indeed if, any information gathered is relevant to the emerging story, so all this was left to ‘compost’.

Rook took almost 4 years to write, from first inklings, but the total time spent researching is difficult to quantify. For me, it’s an essential and ongoing part of the creative process. I start writing more or less into the dark, imagining scenes to get to know my characters. Being a bit obsessive about detail, I can’t stand being vague, even in first drafts, so I look up specific details if necessary. On tricky days when my imagination is not in gear, is somehow stuck, I switch to reading around the subject to free my mind. This will be when I alight upon the gem, the snippet which has been waiting for me to find it, the vital spark needed to get my imagination rolling once more.

For example, well into the redrafting stage, I ground to a halt. The puzzle of what was to connect the 1066 Edyth sections to the contemporary women’s stories was not yet solved in a satisfying way, and it worried me. Turning idly to Google during a coffee break, I found an article on Harold II’s burial place I hadn’t read before. I traced the author – an academic – emailed him, and in response to my query, received an answer pages long, with some relevant sections of the Waltham Chronicles attached. As I read about the monks at Waltham Abbey, a different version of Edyth’s story sprang to mind, one which tied in with Nora’s storyline. My problem was solved, as if by accident.

Q: Parts of Rook must have been difficult for you, as a mother, to write. Without giving away the storyline, can you say a little about the creative process of writing difficult emotional scenes?

JR: What triggered the idea for Nora’s story was an item in a tabloid newspaper, which got me wondering. By chance, I came across another, very similar case, was niggled by the one-sided telling of both. My sense of a misrepresentation prompted a quick online search, to see what else came up.

I didn’t want to write about these ‘true life’ events. Sensationalism was a danger. Plus, Nora’s story is not something I have experienced myself. The novel was going to be about the repercussions of a school reunion in middle age, I thought. How did I not know my own process better? Nora was barely more than an image, yet there I was sketching out a plot. That’s never worked for me before, and it didn’t work this time.

So, the creative process began with my resistance, which in the end gave way. One day, I began talking about my preoccupation with these stories to a friend and, in one of those weird moments of synchronicity which happen when you’re writing, I learned she’d recently been involved with something similar, not personally, but observed at close hand. What she recounted moved me. I read seriously around the subject, watched films, bought a specialists’ manual, wept over images and, most importantly, met with women who’d been through at least part of Nora’s experience.

The full stories behind experiences like Nora’s usually remain secret, but I bought an autobiography by a woman who’d done what Nora has done, thinking it would help me get under my character’s skin, to understand. On first reading, her account disappointed me terribly – so little detail was there. Clearly, she had been left too tender to express her emotions fully. Of course she had. That simple realisation of the difficulty of voicing this particular secret was the key to finding the ‘voice’ for Nora’s most distressing scenes.

Q: You don’t include lengthy notes about the historical facts nor include a detailed bibliography of texts consulted while writing Rook, although you mention some books in your ‘Acknowledgement’. Unless the reader is familiar with English history they could easily miss many of the historical resonances and subtleties which texture the story. What’s the reasoning behind this decision?

JR: This is a very interesting question. The books acknowledged are those I relied on most for inspiration and information, but Rook is fiction, an imagined story which grew organically. I made things up, played with time and distance, wanting to open up possibilities, to explore the difference between secrets and mysteries. I hoped to suggest that, in the end, there is very little we actually ‘know’ – about historical events like Harold’s death and burial place, and also about the people we love.

So, although I read many different historical viewpoints, I tried not to allow ‘facts’ to restrict the direction of the novel’s growth. I selected and discarded sources and information in a process very different from the one I’d employ if writing an academic essay. It’s been said before, but it’s relevant here: the ‘truth’ of a piece of fiction is something separate from ‘facts’.

As for missing historical resonances, if that happens I’d hope there’ll be some residual or subliminal effect to enrich the reader’s experience of the novel. However, some details are there simply because knowing them gave me pleasure, and because they belonged.

Q: If you were paper, what would you fold yourself into?

JR: One of those paper fortune-tellers children make, because of all the possibilities they hold, secreted in the folds.

Cross-posted from We Love this Book

The Art of Fiction – Iris Murdoch

For Iris Murdoch Day – an interview from The Paris Review on how she writes, why she writes, the process of thinking it up and what she thinks is the purpose of literature – fascinating to learn how she carefully plans the outline of the whole book before the actual writing begins. Pity her poor publisher’s nerves! She wrote long hand and only ever had one copy of her manuscript.

Here’s where IM talks about beginning to write a novel:

INTERVIEWER [Jeffrey Meyers]

Could you tell me a little bit about your own method of composition and how you go about writing a novel?

MURDOCH

Well, I think it is important to make a detailed plan before you write the first sentence. Some people think one should write, George woke up and knew that something terrible had happened yesterday, and then see what happens. I plan the whole thing in detail before I begin. I have a general scheme and lots of notes. Every chapter is planned. Every conversation is planned. This is, of course, a primary stage, and very frightening because you’ve committed yourself at this point. I mean, a novel is a long job, and if you get it wrong at the start you’re going to be very unhappy later on. The second stage is that one should sit quietly and let the thing invent itself. One piece of imagination leads to another. You think about a certain situation and then some quite extraordinary aspect of it suddenly appears. The deep things that the work is about declare themselves and connect. Somehow things fly together and generate other things, and characters invent other characters, as if they were all doing it themselves. One should be patient and extend this period as far as possible. Of course, actually writing it involves a different kind of imagination and work.

Asked about her ‘ideal reader’, Murdoch say

MURDOCH

Those who like a jolly good yarn are welcome and worthy readers. I suppose the idealreader is someone who likes a jolly good yarn and enjoys thinking about the book as well, thinking about the moral issues.

See – Iris Murdoch: The Art of Fiction, no. 117 in The Paris Review, Summer 1990, Issue 115

*See also the Centre for Iris Murdoch Studies at Kingston University, London

* BBC Interview – Murdoch discussing character and form, with superb close reading of An Unofficial Rose (1962)