In her early twenties, after a gap year that turned into three, all spent under her parents’ roof, her mother had insisted that she go away to university, if she could still find one that would take her. And so she had gone to university, although it was not, as her father had pointed out, a proper university; it was not a good university. She majored in English, because it had always been her best subject and because she had managed to get a B at A level. It was also her native language.
While I’ve opted out of commemorating the day I was born, my book’s first birthday is another matter. The day itself sees me signing copies at Waterstones York, but most of the festivities will be virtual, with a Kindle promotion (on Amazon UK and Amazon US and Amazon everything else in between) from 18-31 July. To coincide, I’m embarking on a two-week blog tour with a mixture of guest posts, reviews and Q&A’s, revisiting some long-established friends and forging some new ones. It won’t be as long as the five-week tour I did last year, but it’s sure to be as enjoyable. I’ve even given it its own page on the site, where I’ll be posting the live links as they are published. Here’s a preview of what you can expect if you can find the time to join me.
The coincidence of Charli Mills’s latest post on the loss of a secure base with the buzz about the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth later this month (more on both later in this post) reminded me of this piece on fear as a motivator that has languished in my drafts folder for well over a year.
I’m a great fan of Emma Darwin’s posts on writing because, while they’re stuffed with useful advice, she never pretends there’s a simple formula (or two or three or two hundred and three) to make our novels novel and our sentences sing. That’s not the case in some other corners of the creative writing industry. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m particularly hacked off by an implicit assumption that the classic quest underlies each and every story structure: we just have to decide what our hero wants and thwart him in his journey to find it. While I can see how that works for some fiction, lots of the novels I read and love don’t go down that route. On top of that, human motivation is a complex construct: some people genuinely don’t know what they want and some are far too passive to follow their dreams. Some are constrained by circumstances or demons from the past and some characters sabotage their own desires.
One of the things I was careful to check before signing up with my publisher, was the proposed retail price of my book. I’d come across other small presses where the paperbacks were the price of a hardback from one of the Big Five. While I appreciate that small print runs contribute to the higher unit costs for the independent publisher, most readers wouldn’t understand. Why should they pick up a paperback from an unknown author and publisher when they could get a discounted hardback from a household name and half a dozen fancy bookmarks for the same price? How could I entice friends and family to support my launch if they had a sneaking suspicion they were being ripped off?
So I was delighted when debut novel, Sugar and Snails, came out priced at the lower end of the scale. With its beautiful cover and quality printing, people queued for signed copies, a few buying an extra one or two for friends. They were happy, I was happy, my publisher was happy – until I spoke to some booksellers.
It’s been another hectic week on the blog tour: sharing the novels that have helped me find a mind of my own with Urszula Humienik; examining how contemporary novels feature scientific research with Gargi Mehra; talking attachment with Safia Moore stemming from my character’s difficulty in “telling a story about when you were a little girl”; confessing and commiserating with Clare O’Dea regarding our shared difficulty in articulating what our novel’s about; to come to port on Friday with Lori Schafer to address the question of how much my novel might be autobiographical.
After my weekend in a virtual California, I’m heading northward today to join lead buckaroo, Charli Mills on her fabulous Carrot Ranch in Idaho. She’d already set my place at the table with this lovely introduction on her blog. I’m heading back to the UK for the rest of the week, stopping off first with novelist and psychologist Voula Grand, who was the first to feature in my series Psychologists Write, to explore a shared interest in transgenerational trauma, both on and off the page. Then it’s a second guest post (the first, on Day One of the tour, being on debuting as an older author) with my publishers, Inspired Quill, to reveal my responses to the thoughtful questions put to me by one of the team, Hannah Drury. With all this travelling I wonder if I’ll have time to tidy up before Thursday, when I’ll be showing everyone around my Writers’ Room, courtesy of novelist, former prison governor and Costa Short Story Award winner, Avril Joy. Friday, I’ll be hot-footing it to London to join novelist, blogging addict and reader of an early version of Sugar and Snails, Geoff LePard, for a post on how walking facilitates my writing with, hopefully, a few photographs of the walk that features in my novel. (Yikes, did he realise that’s the day he launches his second novel, My Father and Other Liars, or is his attention to me an excuse to avoid a launch party?)
For the first fortnight of the Sugar and Snails blog tour, I’ve been mostly confined to the UK. Apart from a visit to The Oak Wheel in California, I stayed, like the homebird I am, in my own country until pitching up at the end of last week in Australia. While Norah Colvin might live as far away from me as it’s possible to get, I knew I’d have a warm reception on her blog. Now she’s injected me with the travelling bug, I’m spending this whole week with blogging friends beyond my country’s borders, and greatly looking forward to the trip.
I’m starting today in Poland in the Monday Inspirations slot courtesy of former art therapist, writer and fellow broccoli addict, Urszula Humienik, to talk about the books that have inspired me. Tuesday finds me in Pune, India (one of the two calling-off points in this week’s tour I’ve visited in real life) to explore fictional research with Gargi Mehra, software engineer by day, prolific short-story writer by night. On Wednesday I’m off to Ras Al Kaimah (Arabic for Top of the Tent) in the United Arab Emirates to talk attachment with Safia Moore. Recent winner of the Bath Short Story Award, Safia posted a beautiful review of Sugar and Snails on her blog last week AND flew over from her native Belfast on Friday to join the launch party at Jesmond library. On Thursday, I’m visiting another expatriate Irishwoman, journalist turned fictioneer, Clare O’Dea, now a Swiss national, resident in Fribourg, to discuss not knowing what my novel’s about, a follow-up to her own popular post on the topic. Friday takes me back to California with writer of serious prose and humorous erotica, Lori Schafer, where I’m pondering the autobiographical element of fiction with the author of the prize-winning memoir On Hearing of My Mother’s Death Six Years After It Happened. If all that doesn’t show that the blogging community is truly international, I don’t know what would!
A couple of years ago, I published a post on the four criteria that make one a writer. Although I can appreciate the differing perspectives offered in the comments, I’m still happy with my description of a writer as someone who edits their work; understands the “rules” (although doesn’t necessarily follow them); has served their time; and has attracted readers beyond their immediate friends and family. Conveniently, this definition of a writer enabled me to claim the title for myself.
I didn’t really consider the word “author”, and certainly not as a stand-alone title (as opposed to “author of” such-and-such a work), until I joined The Society of Authors last summer. Even then, it was because I needed advice on my publishing contract rather than to club together with other “authors” – such an old-fashioned term, I thought, that ought to be abandoned in the way that “artists” have now rebranded themselves as “painters”. That changed when, last month, I attended an event on working with the media, led by the award-winning former BBC TV reporter, Alistair Macdonald.
A novella about the pleasures of reading aloud and being read to demands a review in the same vein. And an audio review gives me the opportunity to get in some much-needed practice in performance – not to mention the chance for another fiddle with YouTube – in preparation for reading in public from my own novel. My review takes just under eight minutes. However, if you prefer to read it for yourself, you can download a print version below. Your feedback on any aspect of the content or its delivery will be much appreciated.
Sorting through the effects of her beloved grandmother, Mariam, shortly after her death, British journalist, Katerina Knight, discovers a wooden spice box containing a journal and stack of handwritten letters. The documents are written in Armenian, a language which neither Katerina nor her mother understands but, on holiday in Cyprus, Katerina meets a handsome young man who offers to translate them. Mariam’s scribbles tell of relatives lost to slaughter and exile in the 1915 Armenian genocide, of a fortuitous rescue by an English couple and a country childhood ending with another lost love. Meanwhile, Gabriel, an elderly Armenian living in Nicosia, exiled a second time with the partitioning of Cyprus into Greek and Turkish sectors, is bemoaning his granddaughter’s engagement to a man from outside the community, perceiving it as a betrayal of her origins, as cultural genocide, although one of his drinking friends advises tolerance (p175-6):
‘Let go of the past, my friend. All that stored up resentment isn’t good for the soul.’
‘The past is not like water in a toilet bowl. It can’t be flushed away. It’s a septic tank growing more rancid by the day.’
The reader discovers before he does Gabriel’s link to Mariam and Katerina, and from that point the novel is driven by the question of whether these characters will finally connect.
While I take great pleasure in my ability to harvest fruit and veg from my garden, I don’t get particularly excited about cooking it. As I couldn’t let it go to waste, I’ve been rustling up some strange concoctions of beetroot, courgettes and beans lately and rushing to put them on the table before it gets too cool to dine in the garden. Cordon Bleu it’s not! I’m hoping my response to Charli Mills’ latest flash fiction prompt won’t also come out as a dog’s dinner.
Looking for inspiration for my 99-word food story, I turn to the novels on my physical and virtual bookshelves. Consistent with my miserablist inclinations, there’s a dominant theme of the problems that food or its lack can bring. In Shelley Harris’ novel, Jubilee, a boy’s divided loyalties to his white friends and Asian family is played out in his response to the food his mother plans to cook for a street party in 1970s Britain. (You can click on the link to find the quote.) One of the enduring images in Alison Moore’s debut, The Lighthouse, is the way in which, on a catered walking holiday along the Rhine, the main character consistently fails to get the food he has paid for. Although Lewis, the central character in her second novel, He Wants, is forced to endure fewer physical privations, his food is unsatisfying because it’s not what he actually wants.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin my story of how I helped bring an Indian elephant into the English countryside and learnt something about storytelling in the process.
Once upon a time Chamu told me about a guided walk she was planning in the Peak District. The aim was to use story to promote diversity within the national park and the walk would be integrated with the local celebrations for birthday of the Hindu god, Ganesh. Well, I thought, what could be better than walking and storytelling? I jumped at the chance to help out.
Although I knew a little about the elephant-headed god from my travels in India many moons ago, these weren’t exactly stories I’d heard my mother’s knee. What if others were more familiar with the story than I was? Would I be able to engage people? What if I forgot my lines?
Of course, I needn’t have worried. Thanks to Chamu’s support and a lovely group of tolerant walkers, I had a fabulous time telling my two stories, as you’ll see from the pictures below, and from others on the Hindu Samaj website.
The experience got me thinking about the differences between story writing and storytelling. Although I often read my fiction aloud to check for stumbling blocks, telling a story without a script to an audience is another matter altogether.
As a reader and as a writer, I treat adverbs with suspicion and every adjective has to earn its keep. Yet the oral form has a baroque feel to it, bustling with verbal curlicues, never using one word when half a dozen will do. Repetition, cliches, It came to pass and In due course – I welcomed them as joyfully as I attempt to edit out each just and quite from the written
form. It wasn’t the presence of two delightful children that made me spout such archaic and nursery-style phrases; they seemed appropriate for the story to flow.
Relaxing into the role, I began to tell the story physically: modulating my voice;
exaggerating my facial expressions; making judicious use of pauses. I don’t have an extroverted bone in my body, but I couldn’t help falling into the rhythms and performing.
This will be no surprise to those familiar with reading bedtime stories, but to me it
was a revelation, and I’m looking forward to doing it again at the end of August next year, only better. (If you watch the video below, you'll see there's lots of room for improvement.) If you'd like to come, the details will be on the Ranger walks calendar.
If you've been paying attention, you might have noticed I've delivered all the posts I promised for October (gold stars all round). For next month I hope to bring you the fourth instalment in my series on fictional psychologists and psychotherapists; a look at internal obstacles to achieving one's personal and fictional goals inspired by my Q&A with Anthea Nicholson, as well as my recent post on character motivation; and why I'm raving about a small book of psychoanalytic case studies. I've also got posts in the pipeline on writers' routines; writing in the first person plural; old-age stereotypes; leaving home; another look at rhythm and my love affair with allotments. Hopefully there's something you'll want to come back for.
If you're still wondering how the elephant god got his head, you can read a précis of the story here:
The video picks up the story halfway through, when Shiva has chopped off the head of Parvati's darling boy and is sending out his bodyguards to find a replacement.
Or go here for a musical version of the story.
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 three fiction books.
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