When Fleur Smithwick, one of the early endorsers of my debut novel, Sugar and Snails, likened my central character, Diana, to the narrator of The Woman Upstairs, I was flattered. I knew that the author, Claire Messud, was well regarded by the literati and, although I hadn’t read it, the reviews suggested The Woman Upstairs was my kind of book. I also recalled some fireworks around the publicity, when (presumably male) reviewers and interviewers had queried the creation of an angry female character. Having finally read the novel, I followed this up to discover an article in the New Yorker on character likeability. Interesting as that article is, I’m shocked that it stems from an unchallenged assumption that readers will agree that Nora is unlikeable, not someone you’d want as a friend.
I recently shared an extract from my next novel, Underneath, in which a little boy is dancing with his mother to Cliff Richard’s Living Doll. The words are taken all too literally by the child who becomes the man who keeps a woman imprisoned in a cellar but I knew, from the very first draft of this novel, to be wary of quoting song lyrics. Yet, in the version I sent my publisher, I’d retained six words that furnished a neat link between past and present, while demonstrating the narrator’s disturbed and disturbing state of mind. But as publishing becomes a (still fairly distant) reality, I thought I’d better get some advice from the Society of Authors on copyright law. Based on what I was told – and this is only my interpretation – I’ve decided to paraphrase instead of quoting: I don’t want to risk having lawyers on my back; nor do I want to renege on my own personal vow never to pay to be published (it’s the author’s, not the publisher’s, responsibility to seek out and pay for permissions).
Lulu Davenport is the proprietor of Los Rocques, a clifftop hotel on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, frequented by a certain type wealthy Brit who holds themselves aloof from the package-tour hordes. It’s also a popular hangout for the teenagers who spend their summers on the island, roaming freely after months of more orderly education abroad. For almost sixty years, Gerald Rutledge has lived in a small house just a kilometre away from The Rocks (as everyone calls it), but he’s rarely set foot on the premises. It’s not just because, having married a local woman and made his living from the land, he’s more assimilated into the Spanish community, but also because he’s persona non grata to Lulu following their brief and calamitous marriage only a few years after the end of the Second World War.
Version One Laura Barnett is obsessed by the image of a woman on a bicycle swerving to avoid hitting a dog, watched over by a young man casually walking down a lane. Eva and Jim are nineteen, students at Cambridge in 1958, she studying English and he law. Laura has some idea about their backgrounds – Eva the daughter of Jewish musicians who fled Austria in 1938; Jim the son of a now-deceased famous painter and an unstable mother – but she can’t make up her mind where to take them next. So she writes three different versions of their story, falling in love with each such that she can’t bear to discard any one of them. So she puts all three in the same novel.
Version Two Laura Barnett likes romance, but she’s a bit suspicious of the happy-ever-after premise. Although still young herself, she doesn’t agree that later-life get-togethers are somehow inferior to younger couplings. She sets herself the task of writing a novel that will follow the same two characters across their entire adult lives through three different versions of their story: one in which they marry young and two in which they don’t, Eva instead marrying her original boyfriend, the narcissistic actor, David. In these latter two, Eva and Jim’s paths cross intermittently, in one version resulting in an extramarital affair, another in which they recognise their mutual attraction but, either through circumstances or restraint, they remain loyal to their other partners.
Fifteen-year-old Jules is taken in by the cool kids at the arty Spirit-in-the-Woods summer camp, or perhaps, this being the early 70s they’d be the trendy set. (Don’t ask me, I only lived through that period.) Whatever (which they definitely didn’t say back then, or certainly not in a flippant way), they are so in love with irony they adopt the name “the interestings”, not registering that even their irony can be ironic. The camp is idyllic, indulging the teenagers to believe in their talent. Jules, from a small town with small-town ambitions, still grieving her father’s death less than a year before, leaves convinced she can make it as an actor (or would it have been an actress back then?).
I’ve recently dispatched the acknowledgements page to my publisher for my forthcoming novel, Sugar and Snails, in which I’m intending to thank my therapist. Given that I've decided not to name her, to protect the boundaries of our relationship, there might seem little point. Yet I couldn’t exclude someone who, despite not having read a word of the text, has made a significant contribution to the novel by safeguarding my sanity through the long process of writing and preparing for publication. Nevertheless, I do have some anxieties about flag-waving this contribution so blatantly, when it is my impression that the writing world is, at best, ambivalent and, at worst, hostile towards psychotherapy.
It’s well over a year since a book of psychoanalytic case studies made the longlist for the Guardian first book award (even if, sadly, it didn’t progress any further). Stephen Grosz's The Examined Life reads like a short story collection, with lots to satisfy those attracted to serious fiction. Yet, only the week before the longlist was published, the same newspaper featured Charlotte Mendelson’s contribution to the Twitter fiction challenge, a neat cameo that works on the premise that therapy takes away one’s well-being. It seems a shame that many writers should share society’s unease about therapy when there’s so much overlap between the two endeavours.
She knows it’s futile to try to explain what’s going on inside her – she can’t even explain it to herself – so she makes no more reference to it, focusing instead on giving the best impression of herself she can.
One of the most painful aspects of mental distress and disorder can be the inability of other people to acknowledge the lived experience, the need to cover up for their sake an additional strain on an already fragile psyche. So no wonder Grace is relieved when her husband, Gordon, leaves her alone on their narrow-boat home to go on a fishing trip with a friend. A couple of days earlier Grace saw what she took to be the ghost of her deceased first husband, Pete, her deepest and most disturbing love. Gordon, fearing a repeat of the breakdown that had her hospitalised following the death of her teenage daughter, Hannah, wants her to go to the doctor. Grace herself just wants time to revisit the memories of the handsome man who used to beat her, and the daughter who withdrew into the solace of illegal highs.
Struggling to pay the bills, the once-celebrated photographer Rebecca Winter rents out her stylish New York apartment and moves into a dilapidated cottage on the edge of a forest. Divorced from her dreadful husband, bearing the financial burden of her mother’s nursing home care and with a son still struggling to secure his footing on the career ladder, Rebecca feels worlds away from any significant support, as well as from the woman she used to be. Like Tess Lohan in Academy Street, Rebecca tries to make the best of things but, in the early chapters at least, she is beset by a sense of loss and loneliness (p67):
with the peculiar empty feeling that she often had instead of sadness, as though her body knew that it was better to feel nothing at all rather than the something her mother’s playing and her father’s jollity and her fading bank balance evoked.
Blogs, e-books and print-on-demand technology are heralding a new era in publishing, a democratisation in which anyone with access to the Internet may become a publisher or book reviewer. It’s perhaps too soon to tell whether this will be a curse or blessing for readers and writers, but there’s no doubt that we readers and writers live in interesting times. But this is nothing new: revolution and reinvention lie at the foundation of publishing, which makes a novel set in mid-fifteenth century Germany particularly pertinent today.
Peter is unhappy to be called home from Paris to corrupt and feuding Mainz, wrenched by his father from his vocation as a scribe copying sacred texts. He’s unhappier still when apprenticed to the blunt and ambitious Hans Gutenberg in a fetid workshop of hellish furnaces and tedious tasks. His introduction to his master’s mission is unsettling:
Each of those lines ended with an utter, chilling harmony, at precisely the same distance from the edge. What hand could write a line that straight, and end exactly underneath the one above? What human hand could possibly achieve a thing so strange? He felt his heart squeeze and his soul flood with an overwhelming dread. (p16-17)
This weekend’s post from Safia Moore at Top of the Tent, on the motif of loss in Seamus Heaney’s life and poetry, reminded me I’d been meaning to do a post of my own on the theme of grief in fiction and those who create it. While, with reviews of twelve novels I’m hoping to publish this month, I might regret it, the first day of September with autumn creeping upon us seems a good time to revisit my notes and transform them into a proper post.
My first post last month was a review of a novel about a family trying to come to terms with the death of a child. Its author, Carys Bray, told me that her own experience of losing a child, albeit in different circumstances, had contributed to her interest in grief and its effects on people. Unresolved grief was the trigger for Janet Watson’s memoir of her adolescence, Nothing Ever Happens in Wentworth. Yet, for many of us, the relationship between grief and loss in our own lives and on the page is less transparent.
I’m ambivalent about school. On a personal level, I achieved good outcomes from my long ago schooldays, but this was more by dint of my capacity for obedience than any genuine nurturing of my intellect and creativity. (I’m always pleasantly surprised when children these days claim to enjoy school.) On a political level, the view that mass education can be used to weaken working-class culture sits alongside the genuine enthusiasm for learning I’ve witnessed in places where a school place can’t be taken for granted.
How does this translate into my reading and writing? As a child, I lapped up Enid Blyton’s boarding school stories, although the settings were worlds away from my own experience. The junior equivalent of the country-house genre, St Clare’s, Malory Towers and the like served merely as the backdrop for schoolgirl adventures. And that’s the thing with school stories, the experience is so near universal, it’s difficult to untangle the school aspect from the fact of being a child. When I wrote my bite-size memoir, School at Seven, it was more about friendship betrayed than education. Of my short fiction, school provides the setting for the hormone-heavy story of adolescence, Kinky Norm, and frames the parent-child conflict in both Jessica’s Navel and Elementary Mechanics. The epistolary Bathroom Suite is more about inequality than school refusal.
I had an encouraging response to the musical link I included in my recent post on water-themed fiction. I used to provide a musical accompaniment to my posts quite frequently – up until the beginning of this year I was actively populating my Google+ page with a YouTube link to each blog post – but somehow I'd lost the habit. The latest flash fiction challenge from Charli Mills seems a timely reminder to re-establish the link between music and words.
I’ve published a couple of short stories on a musical theme: there’s my flash Getting It Together with Elvis; my short stories Melanie’s Last Tune about a narcissistic music teacher and The Invention of Harmony about a mediaeval nun’s fear of her own creativity. So it didn’t take me long to come up with an idea for the required 99 words. I’m pairing this with the march from Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges, although anything that sparks different reactions would do:
Oh, Professor Lodge, if only you’d named this novel A Narcissist’s Diary or perhaps Tubby’s Dodgy Knee. But Therapy! The title’s crying out for a place in this series, and you know what that means. Yes, I had to read the thing, and think about it, and I so hate doing negative reviews (and I am doing so only in the knowledge that you are big enough to take it/be totally unaware that I live and breathe on this earth). Yes, I could’ve bailed out when I realised your title encompasses a broad church of therapy: physiotherapy; aromatherapy; acupuncture and a rambling form of cognitive-behaviour therapy for which the dreadful manualised Improving Access to Psychological Therapies might have been especially invented – but I’d already paid for the book.
I hardly cared that your narrator’s bungled attempt to clarify the difference between a psychiatrist and a cognitive-behaviour therapist (p15) had me longing to introduce you to Sally Vickers, whose novel, The Other Side of You, featured my last therapist but one. In fact it was almost a relief to be jolted out of my stupor by the subsequent revelation (p212) that said cognitive-behavioural therapist was licensed to prescribe antidepressant medication, outing her as a psychiatrist (or some other kind of medical doctor) after all. Yet I’d have gladly renounced my pedantry in exchange for a spark of connection with character or story to lift me above the morass of ennui.
In terms of wacky ideas for a story, what’s your verdict on these?
Henry Merriweather falls in love with a playing card; Dan and Evelyn cannot shuffle off this mortal coil until they finish the card game they began on their wedding night in 1928. Lady Farrimond plays cards with a stranger and forfeits her most treasured possession.
Two brothers cannot agree even on the rules of a simple game like noughts and crosses; rioting has become a national sport with fixtures, policing, and the whole media circus; even Scrabble has become a dangerous game when the tiles spell out MURDER.
Breaking the Rules, a short story anthology edited by Alex Davis, is replete with such unlikely scenarios convincingly portrayed on the page. Published by Derby-based (very) small press Boo Books, this collection of thirteen stories buzzes with quirky creativity and eloquent prose. Unlike the editor, I’m not a particular fan of games, but I found myself entertained by the stories and in awe of the depth and breadth of creativity on show.
Following the super comments on a recent post, I’m still musing on the process of creating a story; not so much the nuts and bolts of tension, plot and character, but the medley of ideas that drives us to construct a tale. The weekly prompts I’m following, or choosing not to, for flash fiction and bite-sized memoir are bringing this into sharper focus. Normally, I don’t have to dig for ideas and it’s more a matter of waiting for the urge to grab me; now, the set topic gives these unconscious processes a less dominant role. Sometimes the constraint is an aid to creativity, sometimes not, but Wednesday’s challenge on the theme of surprise sparked my interest straightaway. While it was still a struggle to shoehorn my idea into those 99 words – and I’d very much welcome your feedback on how I’ve done it, especially as I’m considering extending it into a longer flash – I had no hesitation in choosing my subject. See what you think, and then I’ll tell you about the background influences of which I’m aware.
Tyres crunching on gravel snapped Mum out of her doze. “Oh, my!”
The grand house loomed ahead. “Do you recognise it?” said my sister.
I parked by the porticoed entrance. Beyond banks of rhododendrons, the lake shimmered. My sister hopped out and opened Mum’s door. “Bet you’re itching to explore.”
Mum stayed put.
“How about tea first?”
Mum didn’t budge.
My sister took her wrinkled hand. “It’s where you were evacuated, remember?” Mum’s tales of wartime escapades were embedded in our childhoods. “It’s a hotel now.” This mini-break, the perfect birthday treat.
Mum was almost retching. “No, please, no.”
For someone who considers herself averse to memoir, I’ve been edging perilously close to it of late. Memoir was what drew me into taking part in Charli’s flash fiction challenge although, like several other participants, I chose to produce a memoir for a fictional character rather than myself. Then I hosted a post from an actual published memoirist: a beautifully moving piece from Janet Watson on the process of rediscovering her teenage self in order to let it go. When Lisa Reiter launched her bite-sized memoir challenge, I didn’t think I’d be joining in. Yet School at Seven got me thinking about my first best friend, and he wouldn’t go away:
My First Best Friend
We sat side-by-side at the front of Mrs B’s classroom. Together we learnt cross-stitch and joined-up writing, drank stove-warmed milk from a squat glass bottle through a paper straw. Together we held out trembling hands as our teacher progressed from child to child, brandishing a wooden ruler. Together we progressed from Blue Book 1 all the way to Blue Book 6.
On Saturday afternoons I’d ride over to his house to watch Batman and Robin dispatch the villains of Gotham city on his black-and-white TV. On Sunday mornings we’d seek each other out at church.
I thought we’d be best friends forever, until the day he biked round to my house with another bunch of friends. Boys, every one of them. I stayed in my garden, watching till they rode away.
In the end, I enjoyed this exercise and was happy with what I produced. Yet where it’s been most helpful is not so much in converting me to memoir, but in nudging me a little further towards formulating my reservations about the form.
Good writing relies on specifics: a crimson tulip rather than a red flower; a curly-haired Bedlington Terrier rather than a medium-sized dog. In writing fiction, we can choose our details to fit with a picture in our head, to suit the rhythm of the prose or to mirror an underlying theme. In writing memoir, we’re supposed to stick with the facts. Janet Watson had her teenage diaries to guide her but, more than twenty years on, they wouldn’t tell her everything she needed to know to complete her book. Even in my short piece of under 150 words, I’m conscious of gaps in my memory, points where I may have strayed from the truth. I feel uneasy that I might be wrong about the year we learnt joined-up writing, and it’s only an assumption that back in 1965 my friend didn’t have a colour TV. I’m not even sure he was my first best friend. It could be I’m unsuited to memoir because I’m too uptight about these minor details, or too lazy to undertake the meticulous research needed to check them out.
Charli Mills wrote that a memory can send a writer down one of two paths: fiction or memoir. I’d love to know what makes some of us prefer one path to the other. On her blog, Writing My Novel, Teagan Kearney wrote recently on the virtues of fiction and mentioned her surprise at discovering that a friend couldn’t read novels because she was unable to suspend disbelief. I also have a good friend who doesn’t get fiction but the idea is so alien to me we’d been friends for around twenty years before I was aware of it. However this friend does enjoy memoir, which strengthens my belief that some people are more suited to one than the other.
I’m hoping to discover more about this preference for fact versus fiction as the memoir challenge continues, although I can’t guarantee I’ll join in next time.
We’ve had some interesting chat about appearance on this blog recently: how much, as readers, do we want to know what characters look like and, as writers, whether it’s okay to allow our characters to check their appearance in the mirror.
This week, I’m continuing the theme from a different angle over on the Black Fox Literary Magazine blog. Do pop across and share your views on whether the clothes we wear to tap at our keyboards can impact on the fiction we produce.
Staying with matters sartorial, who can say they’ve never felt anxious about choosing the outfit for an important event? As I explore in my short story, A Dress for the Address, even prize-winning physicists aren’t immune.
finding truth through fiction
Annecdotal is where real life brushes up against the fictional.
Annecdotist is the blogging persona of Anne Goodwin:
slug-slayer, tramper of moors,
author of two novels.
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