Golden Nuggets – last words on writing, from EIBF 2013

Edna O’Brien [EO] and Margaret Atwood [MA] are so different in the books they write that it’s hard to convey how alike they are, in their professional approach to writing that is. Each spoke of the struggle to find the right form to tell their stories and each conveyed something of the magic of writing through the little golden nuggets they dropped into their talks. Both were gracious too about other writers and were generous in sharing a life-time experience of writing.


  • On writing memoir – it’s crucial that you place the memory in a place, its correct setting, you need to ‘ground it, give it physicality’ (Proustian qualities).
    Country Girl. A Memoir, Edna O'Brien [Faber, 2013] - pb
    Country Girl. A Memoir, Edna O’Brien [Faber, 2013] – pb
  • On setting the scene – don’t write a catalogue of description – ‘unless it has emotional relevance it’s no good’: writing is about detail
  • Ignore inane clichés like post modern etc. – don’t pigeonhole your book
  • On story: stories are essential to any book – hook the reader into what will happen next; stories are about how to live, how to be – about the characters’ inner lives
  • Baudelaire changed the way she writes
  • She is annoyed by the current vogue for limiting writing into genre and category.

The Love Object: Selected Short Stories by Edna O'Brien [Faber, 2013]
The Love Object: Selected Short Stories by Edna O’Brien [Faber, 2013]
An anecdote Edna O’Brien shared reveals the hunger that exists for writing and character, for setting and descriptive writing as well as the story. She told us how her village had few books, the Bible was most prominent. But someone had a copy of Rebecca and its pages were shared around from house to house and hand to hand, but out of sequence, out of order.

Edna O'Brien [author photo from Faber (c.)]
Edna O’Brien [author photo from Faber (c.)]
On Feminism

EO also spoke about feminism during the Q&A in response to a question about how she saw herself in the trajectory of modern feminism and whether she saw herself as a role model.

[in summary – not verbatim]

In some ways, every woman must thank the movement and recognise their work and question why it took so long. She was lucky enough to be living through the time when it emerged. She is grateful and proud. She’s wary of ‘isms’. ‘Most importantly, we must remember that the root and intent of feminism is about freedom of intellect, not about being superhuman or trivialising it’. She’s wary of those who reduce the seriousness of it – ‘it’s so important’ –‘ we mustn’t allow it to be reduced to being about being audacious but about being deep, which is much harder’. She’s drawn to women because of their psyche and the tragedy of women’s lives; pregnancy and marriage and losing the self; feminism is about being a person and deep rootedness. Above all, she doesn’t write under the banner of feminism but writes what most affects her about the condition of women.


[On writing The Blind Assassin]

  • The story preceded the form in which it unfolds.
  • MA had several false starts before she found the right form – starting with death of central character and a found cache of letters; started again with an elderly relative and two journalists; finally found the form to tell her story. The newspapers contradict the story; the story contradicts the story
  • a framing narrative structure is hard to sustain. MA wrote as far as she could in one section and then took up another section but she wrote in sequence
  • Research, research, research – go to the places in your book to add authenticity and realism
  • Part of the struggle to find the right form was resolved when she asked ‘who is Iris’s reader – who is reading the story?’
  • When asked during the Q&A about writing, she said: Plunge in, write what you need to write, then go back and fix it  – and
  • Write 200 words a day, whether good or bad, matters less than getting into the mindset of being a writer
  • Get ‘the look of an age’ from old newspapers and ads in old magazines, such as, Good Housekeeping
The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood (Bloomsbury 2009)
The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood (Bloomsbury 2009)

MA commented on how to write, mostly, these were summarised from her excellent [and highly recommended] book about writing, Negotiating with the Dead. Here’s what she has to say on being a writer:

There’s one characteristic that sets writing apart from most of the other arts – its apparent democracy, by which I mean its availability to almost everyone as a medium of expression. As a recurring newspaper advertisement puts it, “Why Not Be A Writer?…No previous experience or special education required.” […]

To be an opera singer you not only have to have a voice, you have to

train for years; to be a composer you have to have an ear, to be a dancer you have to have a fit body, to act on the stage you have to be able to remember your lines, and so on. Being a visual artist now approaches writing, as regards its apparent easiness – when you hear remarks like “My four-year-old could do better,” you know that envy and contempt are setting in, of the kind that stem from the belief that the artist in question is not really talented, only lucky or a slick operator, and probably a fraud as well. This is likely to happen when people can no longer see what gift or unusual ability sets an artist apart.

As for writing, most people secretly believe they themselves have a book in them, which they would write if they could only find the time. And there’s some truth to this notion. A lot of people do have a book in them – that is, they have had an experience that other people might want to read about. But this is not the same thing as “being a writer.”

Or, to put it in a more sinister way: everyone can dig a hole in a cemetery, but not everyone is a grave-digger. – /

Negotiating with the Dead (CUP, 2002)
Negotiating with the Dead (CUP, 2002)


Special Edition Hardback Version of The Blind Assassin (2013)
Special Edition Hardback Version of The Blind Assassin (2013)

A Handful of Writing Crumbs

a few writing crumbs from the women’s table … from Evie Wyld [EW], Amy Sackville [AS], Jane Gardam [JG], and Maggie O’Farrell [MO] at this year’s EIBF.

All the Birds Singing, by Evie Wyld
All the Birds Singing, by Evie Wyld

“You need to write the books you have to write”, EW said [I’m paraphrasing], but she could have been speaking for everyone I’ve heard at this year’s EIBF who has attempted to explain why they write and how they write and what they write about.

Orkeny, by Amy Sackville
Orkney, by Amy Sackville

Both EW’s and AS’s latest books are set on islands, so it probably seemed natural to pair them in an event. Probably: in style and tone both books are worlds apart – as far apart as Australia, the Isle of Wight and Orkney, where their books are [partly] set. Yet this was one of the most interesting events. EW’s book follows a double patterning, sliding between the past and the present, as it builds the character of Jake – a female sheep-shearer living on an unnamed British island who battles an unknown destructive force. AS’s book follows an unnamed woman who moves to Orkney with her professor-cum-new husband.

EW didn’t write the sections alternately, in order, but followed each part to its conclusion and then sewed them together once she knew the pattern the book ought to take.

AS was intrigued by answering “who would gets to tell the story”?

Both chose islands for different reasons:

EW- islands as prisons, for example, Bass Rock; outsiders are more visible

AS – an island provided the perfect setting for using “classic Aristotelian restrictions”  and to play with perception and reality.

On research, both agreed they could spend too much time, yet not enough. AS researched a way to think about folklore and culture and researched for as long as it took her to write the book. EW researched sheep and shearing (but didn’t shear a sheep).

Both agreed that the way they wrote made the reader work hard – in such a way that each reader takes something different from their books – and both were interested in the form and shape of their books.

Last Friends by Jane Gardam
Last Friends by Jane Gardam

The spark for JG’s trilogy about the end of Empire was a vision of a man stepping out of a London hotel. We weren’t sure whether she had seen him or imagined him, but whatever it was, he stayed in her imagination until she imagined him into print. In her latest book, Last Friends, she returns to minor characters because, “we all know someone in their background who is always there” – all are important, all have interesting features and stories to tell. She begins by wondering about voice – whose voice should tell the story? JG is interested in the way she can use fiction and her characters’ ability to “surprise themselves … in real time”, for her, “there’s no such thing as coincidence”.

Instructions for a Heatwave, by Maggie O'Farrell
Instructions for a Heatwave, by Maggie O’Farrell


  • writes about twenty drafts of her novels
  • never writes the beginning first because she’d be forever working on it, revising and rewriting it to make it perfect and would never get to the end of the story
  • writes scene by scene and then puts it all together when it’s finished
  • never reads reviews [whether good or bad]
  • is never happy with the finished book – it could always be better

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]


Let Them Eat [Sumptuous] Cake

Writing Crumbs 2

EIBF Sunday : Sarah Dunant [SD]

cake (c) Italian Cake Shop LeithAccording to tradition tiered wedding cakes date back to the Renaissance when guests brought individual cakes and piled them on top of each other – which is a roundabout way of introducing the sumptuous literary feast of writing advice that SD served up at her EIBF event on Sunday evening.

Blood & Beauty cover image uk editionSD gave a warm, bubbly, yet forensically detailed, insight into her writing and the research process that went into the creation of her latest novel, Blood & Beauty (Virago).

  • research, research, research: immerse yourself in the period and then drip it lightly into the text to add authenticity; don’t layer your research too thickly but serve it in slices, slid in without the reader realising you are teaching them something new
  • do the work and be confident in your knowledge of the period
  • Blood & Beauty is a campaign, written to correct the gossip and slander around the Borgias, especially, Lucretia
  • history is written by the victors and until recently women were left out of official history. With new developments in archival research and feminism, Dunant could redraw these characters with historical truth and depth
  • she must be truthful to history – can’t make it up- except when it comes to interiority, where fiction is key to unlocking thoughts left unwritten and to explain recorded acts
  • scientific and medical advances aid our understanding of events as they unfold – make sure you remain truthful to what the characters would know about their situation [diseases etc]
  • be aware of changing metaphors over the ages, be period-specific and contextual in prose and style; historical fiction mustn’t sound modern

    Sarah Dunant at EIBF 2013
    Sarah Dunant at EIBF 2013

SD’s website is packed with information about writing as well as topical commentary on her blog and twitter feed.

**I think what impresses me the most about SD is the way she has managed her writing career. She stepped effortlessly from writing serial crime fiction to historical novels and changed her career from criticism and presenting [radio and tv] to writing full time and continues to find new things to say and new ways to say them.

Writing Crumbs

EIBF Saturday: Kate Atkinson [KA] and Salman Rushdie [SR]


speaking on Life After Life as part of the ‘Memory and Imagination’ theme

Kate Atkinson (c.) EIBF
Kate Atkinson (c.) EIBF
  • rarely has the ending planned out
  • writes a ‘symphonic crescendo of endings’ until it emerges
  • Life After Life isn’t about living over and over to get it right
  • doesn’t think the narrator is unreliable
  • Life After Life doesn’t have psychic moments but some things ‘leak through’ into another time
  • felt a responsibility when writing about wartime experiences to get it right
  • different novels have different shapes: – Life After Life is a wave, written sequentially whereas the Jackson Brodie crime novels are carefully plotted pyramids
  • KA doesn’t think of the Jackson Brodie novels as crime novels so much as novels
  • enjoyed the freedom from thinking about plot when writing Life After Life


speaking as part of the ‘Best of Young British Novelists’ theme & interviewed by John Freeman [formerly of Granta]

Salman Rushdie at EIBF 2013

  • wrote Joseph Anton in third person because a) gave a different dimension b) it felt right c) he is a different person now d) it’s about ‘making the self’
  • the novel is a vulgar medium, by which he takes the Latin to mean ‘of the people’
  • enjoyed writing a novel set in 16C as readers/critics tend to ignore the incorrect facts; amused that things he made up were taken as reliable
  • writers need to be ‘fully engaged in life’ to write; ‘go there’
  • prose needs to match the context of the time – read the books your characters would be reading to situate tone and style of prose [syntax and sentient]
  • when asked ‘how new writers develop a voice’ – ‘should they read?’ – he said, ‘real writers have an interesting relationship to language’. SR was reading Zadie Smith’s NW before he came on and used it as an example of how her life experience seeps into the text; from life to page

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


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?


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


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)

Review: A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson

Suzanne Joinson spoke at the W&A conference last week – spoke so engagingly and movingly about the writing process and the process of getting a manuscript into her agent’s hands and then into print, that I needed to read it. Thanks to Bloomsbury for sending on a review copy so promptly. 

It answers the question so often asked about why we go to book events – it’s because writers are thinkers. We engage with their thoughts and then want to read and digest how these are manifest on the page.

In this case, the book lives up to expectations and judging by the reviews and ratings on Good Reads it causes readers to think and reflect.

I reviewed it for We Love this Book (below) but the word count limit meant I had to leave out a lot I wanted to say about it – it’s about mothers and daughters, about being lost and finding yourself, about how we make up our lives and ourselves from those around us and from our family. But it also makes political points about cultural tourism and cultural engagements that are little more than surface dressings. Joinson is particularly good at giving her characters strong voices through their language choice, especially Eva, the protagonist, who has a very vivid imagination.  Read it, think about it. Even if you hate fractured narratives you can take it apart to see how Joinson cleverly puts it all together.

A flavour of the wonderful imagery:

The girl’s hair was damp and her eyes were panic-filled, like a horse in a thunderstorm. Millicent tipped her own head back so that her eye-glasses retreated along her nose. Then, with quick movement, as if pulling up an anchor, a blue-red creature came slithering out along with a great swill of watery substance and was caught, like a fish, in Millicent’s hands. [p. 5]

As you can tell – it’s highly recommended!

A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, by Suzanne Joinson (Bloomsbury)

ISBN 9781408825143, Hardback, £12.99

Straddling present-day England and Victorian China, Suzanne Joinson’s glorious debut switches easily between lives and times, between the immediacy of unbelieving missionary Evangeline [Eva] English’s first person journal disguised as ‘Notes’ towards her guidebook for lady travellers, and a third person narrator who charts the journey of another lost soul, Frieda Blakeman, who travels both to uncover the truth of Irene Guy, her mysterious benefactor, and, like Eva, to find herself.

Blind to cultural ‘difference’, zealous Millicent has a method of Christian conversion she calls ‘gossiping the gospel’ which leads Eva and her too-trusting sister Lizzie, who records everything on her Leica camera, into a danger from which neither passages from Bunyan and the Bible, nor unhelpful traveller guides, such as Burton and Shaw, can save them.

Frieda is unhappy with her job of making cultural connections across the globe and of her affair with married bicycle-shop owner Nathaniel. She finds Tayeb, a homeless, jobless, illegal immigrant fromYemen, asleep outside her front door and together they piece together her fragmented life. In their pairing, Joinson adds a further layer of complication to the tale.

A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar is compelling and vividly realised through unforgettable characterisation and skilful plotting. Leitmotifs, such as birds, bones, and milk weave through strong imagery to create an original story about ‘the layering of different selves that create a life.’

*Cross-posted from We Love this Book