Book Review: Barefoot at the Lake, by Bruce Fogle

Barefoot at the lake front coverBarefoot at the Lake: A memoir of summer people and water creatures, by Bruce Fogle (September Publishing)

Along with other city families, the Fogles spent the months from June to August at their Lake Chemong cabin, involved in the local community and wasting days on Swallows-and-Amazons-type summer activities, while father, Morris, commuted to work in his Toronto florist shop. Life followed a familiar pattern: fathers were for day trips, “mothers were for everything else”.

In Barefoot at the Lake Bruce Fogle recalls the events of one summer, aged ten, which sparked his lifelong interest in animal welfare. It is 1954, fields are being cleared for new homes, destroying garter snake habitats, polio is still a worry, a rabid raccoon destroys a milk herd, and the vet discusses promising surgery trials that replace devastating cataracts. Uncle Reub has come to stay. He has abandoned his medical practice and sits outside in his city trousers and shoes, looking across the lake, a large unread book on his lap and tears in his eyes; sometimes he wears his pyjama top all day. Eventually, he leaves his look-out post and joins Bruce. They meander through meadows and sweetgrass, and visit the fort in the woods surrounded by snake skulls, and frogs hanging from the trees. Uncle Reub spins enthralling adventure tales; his probing questions encourage Bruce to wonder whether wildlife is more than a plaything for boyish pranks and experiments.

Everything is coloured through Uncle Reub: ‘It rained that afternoon, the kind of rain that came and went faster than my uncle’s moods.’ Over the summer, Bruce recognises his uncle’s shortcomings, and it stimulates a reconsideration of his silent father.

Nuanced, restrained prose delivers an unsentimental memoir. ‘A single strand of lake weed was as soft and as fragile as a strand of cooked spaghetti but when it was torn by storms from the bed of the lake and twisted and tied by the lake’s waves it became stronger than my father.’ The childlike sensibility and mature storytelling are finely balanced, punctuated with the kind of gentle humour and keen insight that comes with time and distance.

Reviewed in the TLS, 4th November 2015

Book Review: The Lovers of Amherst, by William Nicholson

Amherst US edition  lovers of amherst frontcover UK edition

The Lovers of Amherst (Quercus) £16.99

[Amherst, US edition published by Simon and Schuster, $26]

Wild nights – wild nights!

Were I with thee

Wild nights should be

Our luxury!

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) only published a dozen or so poems in her lifetime, but even before Mabel Todd edited the posthumous slim collection of her poems in 1890, she was known locally as “the Myth”. The afterlife of the secretive recluse still ripples across academic circles and the popular imagination; it is surprising to learn that, as recently as 1984, the details about the illicit love affair between Emily Dickinson’s brother and their Amherst neighbour was first brought to public attention in Polly Longsworth’s sympathetic study, Austin and Mabel. More recently, Lyndall Gordon’s 2010 revisionist biography, Lives Like Loaded Guns, dug deeper into the known facts.

But fiction has a truthful purpose too. William Nicholson’s entertaining, respectful story throws fresh light onto the extraordinary love affair between 55-year-old Austin Dickinson and 24-year-old Mabel Todd. We cannot know for certain what the lovers shared in the privacy of Emily Dickinson’s dining room, where they often met, or what she saw and heard there, or the effect on her poetry. By interspersing his narrative with snippets of extant correspondence, diary entries, and secret notes, drawn, mostly, from Longsworth and his own research in the Sterling Memorial Archives at Yale, alongside some of Emily Dickinson’s passionate poems, Nicholson creates a solid historical foundation from which he imaginatively recreates the time period and personalities involved. Moreover, the physical act of researching “the very notes they sent each other with such secrecy” is an integral part of the story, adding an air of factual realism from which he speculates as plausible as a biographer does.

Mavis Loomis Todd (1856-1932) arrived in Amherst in 1881 with her husband, David, who had been appointed director of Amherst College Observatory. Entering into Amherst society, she first struck up a friendship with Susan, Austin’s wife, and thereafter entertained the Dickinson household next door. By then the “Homestead” was occupied by Austin’s sisters, Emily and Lavinia (Vinnie), and their invalid mother. Although Mabel never met Emily (she would listen at the top of the stairs while she played piano and sang), they communicated through notes and gifts.

Running in parallel with the story of Austin and Mabel, is the modern-day story of Alice Dickinson (no relation) who arrives in New England to undertake background research for her screenplay about their affair. Through her lover-turned-friend Jack Broad, Alice gets in touch with Nick Crocker, a visiting professor (with a reputation), and she accepts his offer of temporary accommodation. Alice, Jack, and Nick pull us back to previous books in Nicholson’s interconnected series: in The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life (2009) Nick has an affair with Laura Kinross (Broad), while in All the Hopeful Lovers (2010) Laura’s son Jack is put together with Alice through Facebook in much the same way that his response to her Facebook request for information about Emily Dickinson sends her to Nick’s door.

Rowing in Eden –

Ah, the sea!

Might I but moor tonight

In thee!

As she becomes caught up in an affair of her own, Alice reflects on romantic love and passion, and ponders the “I” in Dickinson’s poems and the poet’s relationship to Mabel. “Something true and powerful is at work here. What if it’s something bigger than love? What is there that’s bigger than love?” In New England for just two weeks, her emotional attachment to Nick is perhaps too quickly established, but is nevertheless a necessary part of the storyline.

Emily Dickinson intrudes into the narrative:

Stand at the top of the stairs. Look down into the dark hallway below. She’s there with him, the one he loves, the one I need. A door opens. The rustle of a dress as a half-glimpsed woman passes quickly down the passage, and out of the back door.

While it is but a step from fictional stage directions and camera angles to thinking about the screen version from the writer of Shadowlands lurking in the background, something deeper is going on. Alice’s problem (aside from the fear of tackling her first screenplay) is how to find a way into a story she doesn’t fully understand. “My story, Alice tells herself, is about Mabel, who chose life in all its mess and hurt, not Emily, who withdrew into the sepulchre of her own room. And yet in every picture she forms of Mabel, Emily is near, the listener behind the closed door.” With Nick, she discusses the process of storytelling; how to frame her fiction, and whether she needs to care about Mabel in order to write her story. The Lovers of Amherst is a rich resource for writers.

Without Mabel Todd, we may never have known about the extent of Dickinson’s creativity. It was Mabel who undertook the task of preserving many of the letters and poems that survive, bringing order to the mass of 1800 poems with painstaking transcription, and pushing forward with publication. Nicholson’s story continues on after the deaths of Emily and Austin to explore Mabel’s motivations. His great achievement, though, in The Lovers of Amherst – is to compel us to read Emily Dickinson’s poetry again, with fresh eyes.

This is my letter to the World

That never wrote to Me –

The simple News that Nature told –

With tender Majesty –

‘Parallel Passion & Poetry’: Independent on Sunday, 14 February 2015

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

Book Review: A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler

A Spool of Blue Thread

I’ve read and enjoyed Anne Tyler’s writing since her first novella – A Slipping Down Life (1969; reissued by Vintage, 1990). Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1998) is one of the best books ever written. Her latest, A Spool of Blue Thread is a richly textured story about a Baltimore house and the Whitshank family who have lived there for two generations. Tyler spools back and forth between the present and the past, unpicking the “embroidered” truth of family legend – the Whitshanks “had a talent for pretending everything was fine” – to reveal self-delusion and disappointment. Junior Whitshank relates how this son of “poor white trash” in the Appalachian Mountains came to live in the house he built for someone else, while his daughter Merrick is proud to tell how she married her best friend’s boyfriend; in the present, Abby Dalton is married to Junior’s son, Redcliffe (Red) and they are living in the house. She loves to reminisce about her romanticized memories of the day in 1959 they fell in love, while forgetting to mention that she was with another boy that day. Theirs are the Tyleresque lives of “unremarkable people”. As accomplished as her 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning Breathing Lessons, it is the best novel Anne Tyler has published in decades.

Three of Abby and Red’s four children have married and left home, but Denny, their estranged eldest son, is unsettled, often arriving unannounced and departing just as abruptly, often in a huff. It is a masterclass of restrained writing, lightened with gentle comedy and pitch-perfect dialogue, revealing characters and their motivations slowly, through sibling rivalry and a rising tension that finally overspills in a punch-up in the kitchen.

‘Who said, “You’re only as happy as your least happy child?”’ she’d [Abby] asked Ree in last week’s pottery class.

‘Socrates,’ Ree answered promptly.

‘Really? I was thinking more along the lines of Michelle Obama.’

The complex narrative has more layers than Merrick Whitshank’s wedding cake, held together by recurring motifs and repeated images. Abby, out in her nightgown and slippers during a “derecho”, or fierce storm, to gaze at the “giant tree . . . like a huge stalk of broccoli lying on its side, only with roots”, links the Wizard of Oz, Hurricane Sandy, and the rings on the tulip poplar felled for a wedding photograph. It also resonates with the destructive tree of The Beginner’s Goodbye.

Tyler’s twentieth novel in her fifth decade of writing has playful, knowing nods to previous books: a company for travellers who dislike travelling (The Accidental Tourist); a restaurant named Thanksgiving (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant); Abby feels that life is “slipping through her fingers” (A Slipping Down Life), memory loss (Noah’s Compass), and more. It is as if she has gathered together the threads of her entire oeuvre as an added reward for her attentive, loyal readers.

[Reviewed in the Independent on Sunday, 8 February 2015]

Anne Tyler was interviewed for the BBC World Service this week – listen in to the wonderful discussion of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, which offers a glimpse into her writing and ideas.

Writing Crumbs: Short Stories

… from the Edinburgh International Book Festival

Short Fiction: Anneliese Mackintosh [AM], Colin Barrett [CB], and Graham Swift [GS]

FB_AOM

Young-Skins

eaosgs

 

 

 

 

Any Other Mouth is ‘A viciously funny and heart-breaking collection of semi-autobiographical short stories from one of the UK’s most exciting new voices.’

‘This is the best thing I’ve read in years. Brutally honest and exquisitely crafted, this is a book that breaks your heart, slowly rebuilds it, only to smash it to pieces again. I’m seething with envy.’ Doug Johnstone

AM‘s collection is gathered around death – a fierce, raw, brutally honest, heart-rending collection of stories that spilled out after her father died. She said his death released her to write what she wanted to write, both physically (an inheritance allowed her time to write) and emotionally (poured out things which she’d always held back from telling). Memoir refashioned into highly original prose. Broke my heart to listen:

  • highly personal; intense
  • punctured with black humour and irony
  • collection isn’t ordered chronologically, but has its own order through the emotional arc
  • 3 months to write a first draft; 2 years to rework them

CB‘s collection is a ‘biography of a small town’ [fictional town named ‘Glanbeigh’ and surrounding area of County Mayo ]:  “My town … is nowhere you have been, but you know its ilk.”  A shy, unassuming writer who surprised me with the emotional maturity and sly humour of ‘The Clancy Kid’; the story he read.

Young Skins is a collection of “stories … set in a familiar emotional landscape, but they give us endings that are new. What seems to be about sorrow and foreboding turns into an adventure, instead, in the tender art of the unexpected.”– Anne Enright

  • paired characters; mostly young men
  • in the tradition of Joyce and Beckett who energised writing about small towns: small town fictions, big ideas
  • reveals the mindset of the place through a timeless representation of those who stay behind
  • four years to write it; edited as he wrote
  • advises writing stuff you don’t publish – write out your experiences
  • read; keep reading new things

GS‘s collection is ‘elegant, humble and humane’: James Kidd. I read the short story called ‘Fusilli’ on the way to the event, and nearly cried on a packed train because of the restrained way it unfolds a story of loss and longing.

‘We are the people of England and we haven’t spoken yet’ – ‘The Secret People’, G. K. Chesterton

  • began his career with short fiction and moved to novels. This is his first collection of short stories for over 30 years – why? short stories ‘departed him’ until 2 years ago and then they ‘happened to come’: ‘a joy’
  • carefully constructed collection: read from first to last, in order, to get the best sense of how it fits together
  • collection of stories ‘about how people who happen to live in England and, through the universal in the local, about the ‘greater republic of humanity’
  • one of the functions of fiction is to tell the stories that don’t get told
  • title has a hint of irony: suggests England is a kind of story – made from the stories we spin for ourselves
  • doesn’t write from his own experience
  • loves the idea that something formed out of nothing, in isolation, forms stories in the reader’s imagination which they read in isolation: the shared connection of storytelling

2014 Folio Prize Shortlist

folioprize (c.)
folioprize (c.)

The media have zoomed into the shortlist for the inaugural Folio Prize to focus on the dominance of US-based writers. I can’t see the problem and don’t think I could spot the difference on a blind test. Could you?

The argument goes that, with the Booker now also open to everyone, American authors will win everything. I disagree. It’s up to writers, from wherever they’re based, to write the best story they can and for judges to choose the best book they read, regardless of whether the writer was born in Boston, Mass. or Boston, Lincs.

The Bookseller are whining about US domination and even Galley Beggar Press who published Eimear McBride’s debut, which recently won the Goldsmith’s Prize, temper the news of her shortlisting by raising the spectre of ‘Team Europe’ (whoever they are?). Stop!

Eimear McBride is on the shortlist with A Girl is a Half-formed Thing– hurrah. So is Jane Gardam for Last Friends– double hurrah. So is Rachel Kushner with The Flame Throwers – triple hurrah.

  • Good writing is good writing no matter where the writer happens to live when they write.

Here’s a link to the announcement on the Folio Prize website.

Here’s the shortlist:

Red Doc by Anne Carson (Random House/Jonathan Cape)
Schroder by Amity Gaige (Faber & Faber)
Last Friends by Jane Gardam (Little, Brown)
Benediction by Kent Haruf (Picador)
The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kushner (Random House/Harvill Secker)
A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Galley Beggar Press)
A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava (Maclehose Editions)
Tenth of December by George Saunders (Bloomsbury

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]

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.

EO

  • 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.

MA

[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

MO

  • 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

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.