News from the writing group

Some authors roam their keyboards alone, but many like the comfort of a writing group. I found mine when, after weeks critiquing each others’ work on a Writers & Artists course, four of us decided to continue.

When the world was normal we met in an art deco cocktail bar in Holborn. Sometimes we’d emailed extracts in advance, sometimes it was more ad hoc. Then in lockdown we read each others’ entire books and commented, raising our glasses on Zoom. It really has been invaluable.

One of us, Sofia Due, has just published an earlier novel. Ed and Lily is a cleverly constructed story of the dangers of “couple fatigue” – when you’ve developed a particular way of doing things and nothing’s really suiting either of you but you don’t realise the damage you’re sustaining along the mundane way. Lily, working in Cardiff, has ideals, Londoner Ed has ambition. Ed is organised, Lily is chaotic and spontaneous. On Christmas Eve Ed’s booked a romantic getaway to Iceland – but Lily’s working late and misses her train. The book unravels how they got to this point through flashbacks. The reader’s kept wondering if this is make or break to the very last page. All good fun but it deepens with Ed’s family background and Lily’s job for a frontline charity. Here’s what Sofia had to say about it:

As the privileged (I think) first blogger to interview you, I’ll ask the obvious. What inspired Ed and Lily?

I had this idea about a couple who meet quite young, and everything is perfect but it’s almost too much, too soon. They’re not yet ready to settle down, not where they want to be as individuals, but to achieve what they want, they might have to leave the other behind.  To make a relationship work, does one person always have to compromise and give up their dreams or can both succeed?

I started writing this in 2017 and about 20,000 words in, I saw ‘La La Land’ and thought, ‘Yes, exactly, that’s what I’m trying to say.’  There’s a wistfulness about the choices they made and what was right for them. Either way, to stay or go, would have been right – in different respects and with different outcomes.

Lots of us have had relationships like that, where to make the relationship work means changing direction, taking a chance, moving country and that will cause some difficulties. This is a story about whether you stick it out or go it alone.

It’s also about how we don’t talk about the important things in relationships, especially if things are going wrong. We’re scared and ignore the elephants in the room because once you start discussing things, you can’t be sure where it will lead. 

It’s a clever structure…

The structure was always like that, with alternate chapters from each point of view, to create a dialogue between Ed & Lily. The idea was the story started at the end, when the relationship was in trouble so it would be more detective story than romance, examining what went wrong, why, and whether it could be fixed.

Once I’d committed to this structure, it seemed like every book I picked up was doing the same. What I wanted was that with each chapter, the reader’s sympathies might change.

And how would you describe the genre?

I put this book through the new writers’ scheme at the romantic novelists’ association, twice. The second reader said it was more of a love story than romance as romance is supposed to do the ‘boy meets girl, something gets in the way, they get back together’ structure and this doesn’t. When I started, I was aiming for a simple love story but somehow, in my stories someone always ends up in a refugee camp!

Lily’s a vibrant, funny, realistically flawed character, based on anyone in particular?

I’m glad you think so, and no, not really. Aspects of her life and work are based on people I know but I’m surrounded by warm, competent, well-meaning women who over commit. She’s a bit scatty, but that’s what happens when you have too much on your mind, when you aren’t concentrating because you have a mental block about something else.

I found it harder to warm to Ed, although I cared so much about Lily it didn’t matter. Can you sell Ed to me?

Ed is kind and funny (I hope) but he lost his mother very young and is scared of more loss. The self-sufficiency and minimalist personal style is a defence; if he doesn’t have much, there isn’t much to lose! He’s liberal and open in his attitudes and appreciates that his rival for Lily isn’t someone else but her aspirations – which he supports. He’s shocked when he finds he might be wrong. He really loves Lily but he’s frightened of losing her by making demands and caging her. Without meaning to, that’s what he’s done. He needs to set himself free. As Lily says, ‘You were wearing a Hawaiian shirt when we met.’ He can change, although he doesn’t have to, just show he could.

That’s interesting. Other people have wondered how he puts up with Lily!

Lily works with refugees in war zones, a serious balance to the “boy meets girl” flavour of the main story. Is this based on your own experience?

To an extent. Refugees find their way into everything I do but although I worked with some children in the Calais jungle, most of my work is office-based. I’ve never done field work in a refugee camp. The camp in the book is fictional but based on places I’ve seen. The refugee stories like the woman walking for hours on a broken ankle or offering bracelets in exchange for help are real.

Why did you make Ed an architect?

Perhaps because when I started writing, we had building work and I was comparing the rubble with the computer drawings and thinking what I needed was a nice architect in my writing life to take my mind off the mess. It’s part of Ed’s conflict. He likes clean lines and open space but his loyalty to the people he loves means he’s surrounded by fusty antiques.

You started “Ed and Lily” written some years ago. What made you revisit it?

I finished it in 2017 and got a few requests for the full manuscript, but it wasn’t taken further. I worked with a mentor during 2019 to rework the timeline. Again there was interest, but it wasn’t taken up. Usually, I try and write something every day but during the first lockdown, I found it really difficult. I decided getting this book out would be my creative project for the year, to keep me looking forward. It’s been fun, I’ve had a lot of involvement in it. I also thought stylistically, it was now or never for this book. After the times we’ve been going through, who knows if realistic characters with ordinary problems will be what we want to read about!

Who would like this book for their birthday?

Perfect for people with birthdays in the next few months. They’ll get a chance to appreciate the timeline countdown to Christmas.

Buy links:

Ed & Lily eBook : Due, Sofia: Amazon.co.uk: Kindle Store

The Book Guild Ltd

Ed & Lily by Sofia Due | Waterstones

Ed & Lily by Sofia Due | WHSmith

Ed & Lily : Sofia Due : 9781913913298 (bookdepository.com)

Google Play: https://play.google.com/store/books/details/Sofia_Due_Ed_Lily?id=6Es_EAAAQBAJ

The ebook will soon be available through other retailers, such as Apple, Barnes & Noble US, Kobo and OverDrive.

©Jessica Norrie & Sofia Due 2021

Oyez oyez

I marked my 5th blogiversary and promptly disappeared from the blogosphere. Ongoing family stuff, you know how it is… So this is a have-to-write-one-now-or-may-never-make-it-back post. It’s a miscellany of announcements. Are four items enough for a miscellany? A mini-miscellany, perhaps.

First, my enterprising German translator Michaela Pschierer-Barnfather persuaded me to record an extract from The Infinity Pool – me in English, she in German from Der Infinity-Pool. This is for the YouTube channel TranslatorsAloud –  also on Twitter @LoudTranslators. It’s a great site showcasing literary translators and my debut novel is privileged to provide their first item of translation out of English! Literary translators (indeed all translators) are an overlooked and undervalued breed. In the days of foreign travel I often used to marvel at the number of bookshops and the size of their translated stock, the evident enthusiasm of overseas readers for the words of other cultures and languages. Meanwhile we in Brexit Britain point our stubborn, leaky boat vaguely towards Australian harbours that probably don’t want us. I invite you to be the judges of my recording as I can’t bear to watch more than a few sentences of myself. Michaela’s came out really well and I do wish this hard working, professional translator and everyone else on this fascinating site good sales and many enjoyable projects to follow. Here we are in all our glory: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bDq9QFu2NrQ&t=4s

Michaela

Second, I promised fellow author and blogger Gail Aldwin I would publicise her blog on mine. Gail has many gifts – writing, teaching, warm encouragement of fellow human beings – but also one problem. For some reason Facebook will not let her post items from her blog, which is just rotten for an author. Anyway, back in March Gail approached me for a review of her book This Much Huxley Knows. I snapped that I don’t take review requests. She apologised for asking and offered to review The Magic Carpet instead and to interview me on her blog. I took her up on both offers, and the review was great. How generous is that? I said – in some shame – I would reblog my guest post from her blog. Then WordPress wouldn’t let me. The social media gods really do have it in for this blameless person. So she suggested I copy and paste it. But I think it’s better read in its original home on Gail’s blog because then you can also explore her books and the writer services she offers. Thank you again, Gail, for the opportunity, and I wish you good luck with your books and better luck with social media.

Item three. Many indies dream of getting a “proper” publisher, but fate can still intervene against mainstream publishers and authors. You may have read a rave review I wrote of Kevin Sullivan’s first-in-a-new historic Glasgow crime series, The Figure in the Photograph, published by small but historic firm Allison and Busby. Sullivan writes a jolly good detective yarn with engaging characters, interesting themes and evocative settings. This series opener should have been launched at Glasgow Waterstones in Spring 2020. Does anything about that ring a plague warning bell? Waterstones had put up their Covid shutters and didn’t reopen for months. The stylish hardback edition was destined for a library market but libraries closed too. When the paperback and follow-up hardback, The Art of the Assassin appeared in early Spring 2021 the bookshops and libraries were still shut and launches and festivals were online promise only. Some new books have found a voice via social media but I’m sure these are not the only new books which have gone under the general radar. Anyway – three cheers for another grand yarn of Edwardian wrong doing in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Juan Cameron the Scottish/Spanish detective-photographer hurtles round gracious riverside houses, stations, theatres and slums as he mixes with Viennese professors, Cuban exiles and women who on the whole are brighter than he is. Do track this slightly bumbling sleuth down. We all need good reads this rotten May as hailstones replace lockdown to keep us still indoors.

Sacré bleu! The last laugh lies with my fourth item. Comedian Ian Moore ‘as also created a new detecteev, wiz apologeez to ze French. Death and Croissants will be published on 1st July and already comes recommended by Alan Carr, Josh Widdecombe, Sarah Millican, Adam Kay… If you can’t get to France this summer this may be the next best thing. It’s even been compared to Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club, although I’m too jealous to read him so I can’t comment. I wish Ian every success, and if you can’t wait there’s a free prequel available here, with a quiz thrown in. Amusez-vous bien!

It’s nice to be back, but for now au revoir.

©Jessica Norrie 2021

Review: “Good Grief” by Catherine Mayer and Anne Mayer Bird

In the 1980s, our bookshop had no computerised systems and often customer requests were vague (“It’s about history, and it’s green”).

Customer, irritable manner: Do you have a shelf on bereavement?

Me: Er, let’s try the General Non-Fiction or Psychology sections? (Self-help, even in Hampstead, didn’t have its own shelf then.)

Customer, impatient: That’s not what I had in mind.

Me (hauling volume one of British Books in Print from under the counter): I’ll look under B for Bereavement but do you know a title or author’s name…?

Customer, tearful: How could I know a title, I didn’t know I was going to need it!

A wiser colleague took over. I’m still ashamed of my insensitive response and not sure my youth was an excuse.

In this New Year without fireworks there are many more bereaved. Here’s children’s author Shirley Hughes on widowhood in the Oldie:

“(After 12 years it’s still hard), but I’ve kept working. I go to my studio every day at half past nine and I’m on deadlines. Working keeps your brain in your head. During the week I was holding it together but you can’t work all the time and weekends were, and still are, absolute hell without John. But I started writing a novel and… it kept me going. What really kept me going was my three grown-up children… and my seven grandchildren; I see a lot of them.

But what about bereavement during a pandemic, without extended family visits? (What’s the right verb – do we negotiate/manage/undergo/suffer/survive bereavement?) My first read of 2021 was Good Grief, by journalist and activist Catherine Mayer and her mother Anne Mayer Bird. They were both widowed within six weeks at the turn of 2019/2020, supporting each other through the aftermath as Britain entered lockdown. Anne found herself writing to her husband John, telling him about current events and how she missed him, her difficulties and successes, setbacks (including falling victim to cruel fraud) and support, the government’s Covid failures and how John’s garden was pushing ahead into spring without him. Catherine wraps these letters with her own reflections on losing husband Andy Gill. She describes how his loss undermines her day-to-day functioning, notes how she can mourn, plan and celebrate, tries to eat healthily, exercise, work and maintain morale. It’s all additionally affected by lockdown. Anne and Catherine dislike the common “keep busy” advice given to the bereaved. I remember my father and the widower of a very close friend both swearing by it. accepting all invitations, travelling, theatre-going, having friends to stay. The Mayers couldn’t, whether or not they wanted to. Their memories of coping with previous bereavements are comparative studies of a different society.

Good Grief is a thematic but not a chronological account. We meet two funny, clever, kind men several times, and they are repeatedly taken away. Two funny, clever, sad women celebrate them during and after bereavement. Some of the (welcome) humour is laugh-out-loud funny, some wincingly awful – the condolence message sent through a courier service that kept Catherine awake with postponed delivery alerts; the unbelievable crassness of an aeroplane passenger’s remark to the suddenly widowed woman in the next seat. But most of the humour here is humour in the old-fashioned sense – an imbalance of body and mind. Bereavement is a physical and emotional upheaval, no matter how expected and even when a “blessed release”. Those left behind change inside and out; they experience heat and cold differently, their digestion alters, their reactions slow and may be inappropriate; their thoughts take surprising paths. There are questions, what-ifs, guilt, regret, memories galore. Grief’s ambush can’t be quelled; it just bursts out elsewhere.

These are two very personal takes on becoming a widow. Some reactions will resonate more than others, as Anne’s worry did with me: how, without John, to reach the top cupboards and master the TV remote? Meanwhile Catherine creates the hashtag #lovelydead to celebrate Andy. Using social media may support many and let’s hope they’re not trolled as she has sometimes been. Some potential comforts disappoint: Anne wants to revisit the film Truly, Madly, Deeply, whose laconic hero (Alan Rickman, himself now among the #lovelydead) haunts a mourning Juliet Stevenson. This time round, Catherine and Anne find it mawkish, fictional grief that can’t comfort real grievers. (I think Stevenson’s acting could illuminate a shopping list and was disturbed by their dismissal of my favourite scene, but then I’ve been lucky, my own 2020 more frustrating than grief-filled.)

The Mayers struggle with what Catherine calls “sadmin” and “dread tape”. So, everybody, please: write and update your will; make your funeral/memorial wishes known; tidy your financial affairs and tell someone you trust your passwords. These loving acts reduce the practical burdens of death.

Faced with such pain, why “Good Grief (apart from the professional journalist’s knack for a punning headline)?  Welcome it, was the message I received. Grief discards trivia and reminds us what really matters. Grief puts the dead centre stage and celebrates them. If they hadn’t been so loved, we wouldn’t be so sad. Without grief, we can’t continue living.

It so happens my third novel describes bereavement from the point of view of the dead. My main character can’t RIP until problems are resolved and conversations finished. I’m still hoping she’ll find a publishing home in 2021. Meanwhile, or as well, if Good Grief had been available in the 1980s, I’d have suggested it to my customer, to perhaps reflected some feelings, help her pause for breath and support her moving forwards.  

© Jessica Norrie 2021

Review: the Writers’ & Artists’ Guide to Self-Publishing

Last year I was asked to contribute to the Writers and Artists Guide to Self-Publishing. To be more precise, the publishers asked self-published authors to contribute case studies, I responded and they kindly included me. The pandemic delayed my author copies. My thanks now go to Eden Phillips-Harrington, Assistant Editor of W&A yearbooks at Bloomsbury Publishing, who’s written a useful chapter on how publishing – traditional and indie – actually works.

Like others, I didn’t plan to self-publish. But after not quite making it past the editors/gatekeepers of trad publishers despite my agent’s best efforts, that was how my first and second novels appeared and I’ve been learning how to go about it ever since. As for my contribution to this guide, I felt as Groucho Marx did about his club – any book that included my advice wouldn’t be one I’d want to read. Now I realise the guide is a readable mix of useful reassurance, information and “next steps”. Even my words of wisdom may help someone somewhere.

All such information is available online, notably at ALLi (Alliance of Independent Authors) but I did like holding it in one volume, reading from start to finish how the process works, and scrawling pencil notes rather than trawling through linked web pages. W&A is a highly reputable brand and this guide has a practical, no-nonsense approach from a bevy of well qualified and established experts (apart from me). A good general introduction for absolute beginners to the self- publishing world, it also contains information still unfamiliar to me after five years, explains concepts I was pretending to understand and signposts old and new tasks I must get around to (website! Email list!)

The very clear chapter on editing explains, with checklists, what different types of editor do, in which order, with timescales and tasks. Using an editor is non-negotiable. Self-published books have a rotten reputation, partly a hangover from vanity publishing days and still sometimes deserved. It follows that self-published authors have a responsibility to all colleagues and readers to ensure their product is of blameless quality.

As a contemporary fiction author who doesn’t need illustrations, tables, photographs etc, I’ll admit the detailed chapter on design made my head swim! It’s maybe best read after the chapter which explains both physical and ebook production. Providers include firms that undertake every aspect of production for you, including editing, design, manufacture, distribution and marketing, specialist services you can dovetail (you hope) together, and market giants like Ingram Spark or Amazon. Together these chapters start you off whatever your project, establishing when you can go it alone and when you’ll need to pay for professional input.

The distribution model, sales and royalties to expect (or aspire to) are outlined next. These differ widely according to decisions you take at the production stages; bullet pointed lists assist you. Two factual inaccuracies in this chapter highlight the drawbacks of a paperback guide to a constantly changing subject: since it went to press Bertram UK wholesalers, sadly, went into administration, and UK ebooks are no longer subject to VAT.

I HATE MARKETING MY BOOKS! Fortunately, a sympathetically written marketing chapter has made me more receptive. I’m almost basking in the sentence Put the readers’ needs first and you won’t ever feel uncomfortable or like a salesperson. I’ll never write “I love marketing my books” but the checklists, practical suggestions and myth-busting do help. However, fourteen printed links to online sources is too many for one chapter. That’s fine for ebook readers, but…it would have been better to summarise what they say.

Although I HATE MARKETING MY BOOKS, here’s one: http://getbook.at/TheMagicCarpet

The authors’ case studies show the enormous amount of mutual help authors provide. I cannot stress this enough. It’s only human to envy others sometimes, but by and large self-published authors form a supportive and generous community, especially online. It’s also nice to see book bloggers recognised. These mostly unpaid reviewers and publicists give invaluable service and should be treated with care and courtesy at all times or they’ll give up and then where will authors be?
Most people needn’t cover every item on the TEN PAGES of to-do lists, but they do mean you won’t leave anything out. As the guide says, “enjoy ticking them off”. The further information sources and glossary at the back should come in useful too.

Occasional statements beg for expansion. Some strong independent publishers prefer to deal with authors directly, says the Introduction. Since most self-published authors don’t by definition have agents, I imagine readers screaming “Who? WHO?” Although I do understand, in the present climate, how quickly details change.

Although I HATE MARKETING MY BOOKS, here’s another. Http://getbook.at/TheInfinityPool or for the German and French type the title and author into Amazon.

Genre and cost are two elephants in the room. I think genre is within the guide’s scope as the closer a book fits a genre, the more likely a self-published author is to succeed. My own sales have fallen foul of not being crime, romance, horror etc. How did I fall into the quagmire of “general fiction” and is there a helping hand out there?

Producing my first novel cost nothing. A friend supplied the cover photo, a designer friend put it together, we uploaded everything to KDP and off we went. It sold 4000+ copies. Well done me, but I squirm now. Professional editing would have made a good debut better. Second time round I bought design, editing, proofing, a blog tour… maybe £2,500? Your budget is very important! You will be covering all costs yourself and you need to be clear what these are! says chapter 4. But the guide is coy about the sums involved until you reach some of the author case studies which – gulp! – give food for thought to would-be millionaires.

So – helpful, practical, a very good start or waymarker for any self-publishing journey. Now would W&A please publish a guide to using the updated WordPress Gutenberg Block Editor. It has about the same speed and flexibility as its namesake, a printing press designed around 1440. Apologies for any swearing that’s leaked while attempting to write this post. See you next time, unless I give up in despair.

©Jessica Norrie 2020

With an eye to the future

Three weeks after The Magic Carpet was published, the book is doing well and its author is booked for a trabeculectomy operation at London’s Moorfields eye hospital. A “trab”, as we carelessly throw the name about in these parts, involves inserting a small bleb (shunt, drain, thing) under the upper eyelid to relieve pressure of fluid on the eye, which in my case is causing significant sight loss. If successful, they’ll do the other eye in a few months. Just a trab. If you say it really fast you can almost forget it’s happening.

I have been in a right tizz about this for months. I joined an online forum and retreated in terror at the horror stories they told. A calm and gentle person at the International Glaucoma Association pointed out that people for whom things go wrong will always be more likely to post than those for whom all runs smoothly, and that my highly respected  surgeon Mr Gazzard is at the cutting edge (no, she used a more fortunate term than that).

But today I’m fairly calm, if you can be calm when filled with adrenalin, fresh mango scrambled eggs and toast that came out exactly right for once, and two carefully measured cups of tea all finished and washed up by 6.59am. I got up early for what I call the condemned woman’s breakfast before my enforced fast. The term makes my partner wince – gallows humour is not something we share.

Glaucoma
This week’s recommended reading

I wasn’t going to mention any of this on the blog at all, or at least not until afterwards, as it all seems a bit private and not much to do with books which is what the blog is supposed to concern itself with. But now I’m finding it’s a good way of passing a long coffeeless lunchless morning. Next I’ll wash my hair as thoroughly as I can (no bending forwards or getting eyes wet for 4-8 weeks), and pack my overnight bag as we’re staying in a cheap chain hotel near the hospital because this will be day surgery (note: others will be in the house). I was initially offered an overnight room in the patients’ hostel, as I’ll have blurred vision in one eye and a patch over the other, be recovering from a GA, and have to be seen in clinic the following day anyway. Then the local council fire inspectors came along and condemned the building, so the Holiday Inn will be cleaner than the tube (advised not to use public transport) and cheaper than a taxi back to the suburbs from central London. It will be reassuring to be close to their A and E dept but we won’t use the swimming pool, the bar, or the amenities of famously cool, stinkingly trendy Shoreditch. (I do wish our hellish government would retreat from stupid Brexit and fund the NHS instead. I know the staff will be skilled and kind, and the clinical care will be excellent, but I’ve discovered before that it comes utterly without frills. And don’t say what do I expect for free – I’ve paid a lifetime’s National Insurance and tax for the NHS and I’ve never abused it the way certain politicians do.)

When I start ranting I know it’s time for that hair wash. Excuse this post if less carefully edited than usual – it was a bit of an afterthought / timefiller / timewaster / distraction / delete as applicable. And if no other chance comes, huge thanks in advance to staff at Moorfields Eye Hospital and to my optician who originally diagnosed this thing – GET YOURSELVES TESTED FOLKS! To that end, please share this post as you think fit. Must remember to take the nail varnish off! See you – a bit fuzzy perhaps – on the other side!

©Jessica Norrie 2019

The Magic Carpet – standby for landing!

Once upon a time, starting in 2016, an author wrote a story about children and adults in London telling each other traditional tales, and how the tales came to their aid when their lives took unexpected, not always welcome twists and turns. The author hoped to publish her novel in 2018.

Hey ho. London’s a complex city. Any transport a reader jumps on in such a place is bound to be delayed, make unscheduled stops at diversions and events, carry eccentric and delightful and difficult and conflicted characters before arriving safely at its destination. Since I started writing The Magic Carpet, world statesmen have visited (some more worthy of the name than others); royal weddings have pomped and circumstanced down the aisles of chapels and castles; Prime Ministers have come and gone, and all that time I’ve been concentrating on a specific few weeks in a cul-de-sac somewhere around the wiggly bit of the eastern Central line. I’d got my structure, but was otherwise still drafting when Guy Gunaratne  impressively stole my thunder by bringing out an edgier, inner city five narrator novel set in London. I reviewed it here. His characters are teenagers and older; mine were only seven when I invented them. They must be preparing for secondary school now. After making them negotiate domestic minefields in the book, I hope they’ve had a more peaceful time since.

Now hold on to your hats! The Magic Carpet will finally be landing on 22nd July in ebook format, and shortly after that in paperback. You can preorder the ebook here, ready for the start of the school year when the narrative begins. Meanwhile, let me show you the cover, designed by Jennie Rawlings at Serifim. I’m so happy with this. I love the bright colours, their impact like the gorgeous fabrics worn by the mums clustered at any London school gate at home time. Jennie’s drawn a ribbon flow of narrative binding together the characters. There are hints of Chinese characters and Islamic art to indicate some of their different heritages. She’s made the children at the centre of the book hold hands at the fringes of the carpet, which is great because in my story it’s the children who show the adults how to join together, and on the spine of the paperback (which I can’t show quite yet) she’s put a little rabbit for reasons you’ll have to read to find out. She’s chosen a strapline quote that sums up the power of telling magic stories for any community.

Magic carpet ecover This is the ebook cover. On the paperback, being finessed as I write this, there’s also a blurb and some ego boosting words of praise. I need those at present – no matter how many drafts and how much time is spent, I’m sending my characters out into the world with all the trepidation of a parent sending a child off to school. I hope they’ll be ok – no, I know they will be! At the the very least I do hope I’ve whetted your reading appetites!

©Jessica Norrie 2019

Three Brits and an American – my 2018 book choices.

Oddly I wasn’t asked by the Guardian, the Observer etc to review my books of the year. I’ll ignore the snub and proceed anyway.

My runaway favourite was Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. It’s a short novel, probably a novella. But Moss packs in enough themes, informations, emotions and landscape for her book to resonate way beyond the time it takes to read. As a reader with a dreadful tendency to 38922230skim, I was forced to concentrate on every word, lest I miss something important, or beautiful, or poignant, or funny, or all of those. Silvie is the teenage daughter of an obsessive amateur historian. She and her long suffering mother accompany him to enactments of Ancient British life, along with a gullible, irresponsible professor and his wiser students. The violence in their way of life builds among the flora (is it poisonous?) and fauna (can they trap or spear it?) of the Northumbrian landscape. The writing is poetic – the stream was…still the colour of whisky in a bottle, murmuring over the stones – but Moss pulls no punches; her instructions on how to skin a rabbit nearly turned me vegetarian. You sense that she shares the horrible father’s fascination with living another culture, and her research is convincing. This isn’t just atmosphere though – there’s a strong and menacing contemporary story that mirrors the ancient ones, and you won’t be able to put it down.

35212538I was intrigued to see a novel with five interweaving narrators from different ethnicities in contemporary London get long listed for the Man Booker Prize. This year, my own Magic Carpet was rejected by more than one publisher because, er, five interweaving narrators from different ethnicities in contemporary London could be confusing. Checking out the opposition, I found Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City is fantastic. Where my characters have houses in a run down suburb, his live on an estate (except the family who’s “made it”). At first the snob in me didn’t want to read the idiom I hear on the bus every day, but I was so quickly drawn into the story of these characters that I began to empathise with them and enjoy the style. Gunaratne gets four of the contrasting voices, so far as I can tell, perfectly – they could be on any bus I take. The only one that works less well for me is the middle aged Irish woman. But the interrelated stories of the fatherless young Muslim boy, the black fitness fanatic and his disabled Montserrat born father, and the weedy British Asian rapper had me hooked, their hopes snuffed out relentlessly but always resurgent against a background of unfolding tensions and injustice. “Dust of an old order mixing up with the sweat of the new. All I do-tho is head down and go beast-mode when I can. Mission to get out these Ends is enough.” I closed the book rooting for them, hoping that against the odds, one of them would have their gifts and strengths recognised.

37805364Those were the standout two for me from 2018, but honourable mention goes to a favourite author, Andrew Miller, for Now We Shall Be Entirely Free. A deserting soldier is pursued by a member of his regiment from Spain via Bristol to the Highlands and Islands during the Napoleonic wars, giving rise to urban and country settings, seascapes and capitals and early pioneering hospitals (anything medical is a strength of Miller’s). Characters reflect the position of women, the orphaned and the destitute, and even the worst embody at least some kindness alongside the cruelty, show at least some fellowship amid the isolation. There’s a love story and a war story: Miller is always good for a readable yarn with serious resonances and fascinating historical research. It would be a perfect book if, ultimately, it wasn’t just a shade too improbable.

17349743Finally, here’s a writer who died in 1965 but she’s my rediscovery of the year so I’m claiming her for 2018. Shirley Jackson’s The Sundial is a hilarious horror story of a family trapped in a cult of their own making, dysfunctioning away in their ridiculous nouveau riche ancestral home with all the neurosis, snobbery and fancy dress you could want. There’s a funeral, lots of gin, a garden party and a doll’s house and a hidden apartment and several seances and the servants must be sent away in case they see and tell too much…Hooray! There are more Shirley Jackson books I haven’t read – I just wrapped one up for a friend and unwrapped it again because I can’t bear to let it go before reading it.

The blog is going to be intermittent from now on. I’m finding the glare of the screen difficult; it’s a side effect of treatment for an eye condition. So I’m going to try and concentrate on novel number three instead and keep away from the keyboard otherwise. I’ve loved blogging and I want to thank all those who’ve read and commented over the past few years. I’ll certainly be back if novels number two and three (when finished)  get a publisher, or if I suddenly have something I want to say. In the meantime, have a lovely Christmas and why not curl up with one of the above books – I promise you won’t be disappointed.

© Jessica Norrie 2018

 

A funny thing happened on the way to the story

People have told stories since once upon a time. We know that from prehistoric cave paintings and sculpture. There may have been stories before there were words – through body language, perhaps. We know all societies create some form of music and that stories were told through music before they were written down. Homer’s epics (if Homer existed) were told to a musical accompaniment, for instance.

We tell stories to tiny children to comfort, entertain, process and explain (those who don’t, should). As adults, we call news scoops “big stories” and those who can afford it tell therapists our stories, retelling and reframing until with help from the therapist we arrive at the kernel within. More universally and informally, women recount what matters to them to their friends, and in healthy societies men do too. Was there ever anything less healthy than the requirement for British men to keep a stiff upper lip?

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In the days when there was more to training teachers than phonics and test scores, I was in an audience of education professionals addressed by Dr Richard Stone, a member of the MacPherson Inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. His anger simmered, as he recounted policing failures after this innocent young black man’s life ended so violently at a London bus stop. But his delivery was controlled, starting something like this: Let me tell you a story. Humans need stories. By sharing what happened in story form, we can make sense and learn from it. At times during his two hour talk, he stopped, silenced by the horror of what he had to say, and then with a deep breath, would repeat like a mantra: back to the story; humans need stories. He was a good public speaker so the repetition reassured us, and every now and then he threw in a witticism, to relax us with a relieved burst of laughter. That fortified us for the next onslaught. Because he told us the facts in story form, they’re still in my memory after eighteen years.

Youth murders in London have increased since then. Few get Stephen Lawrence’s column inches and anniversary documentaries. Little Damilola Taylor, 10 years old, was one who did, and Stephen Kelman based his funny, tragic book Pigeon English around a similar story. Other difficult situations lead us to storytelling too: Mary Smith cared for her father with dementia and fashions elegant, moving, funny anecdotes from what must have been painful experiences on her blog, My Dad is a Goldfish. It’s not uncommon for people suffering from mental ill health or illnesses such as anorexia, alcoholism or cancer to turn to blogging their experiences, and almost always they manage to turn them into self contained episodes – I am continually amazed by the skill of human beings to craft misfortune into stories we can all learn from and in a peculiar (cathartic?) way, enjoy. Memoir writing courses are increasingly popular: in today’s weeping world, do we need stories even more?

 

Scheherazade told stories to save her life, but it doesn’t happen only in fiction. This 1941 article, still astonishing now, tells of theatre, cabarets and even comedy performed by Jewish inmates of Dachau and Buchenwald.

The extremely daring Compère…introduced the show as follows:

“My friends, you are lucky to be here this afternoon. Here, in Buchenwald, we have the best art and the best artists in the whole of Germany. Here you can actually laugh out loud at our jokes. Here is the freest theatre in the Reich. In the theatres outside, the actors and the audience are frightened because they fear that they may end up in a concentration camp. That’s something we don’t have to worry about.”

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Professionals and amateurs often use the episodic story form to make sense of tragedy: an example in mainstream media was Rebecca Armstrong‘s four year series about life after her husband’s serious car accident. Comedians can wring laughs and, crucially, empathy, from the darkest situations: Lou Conran made a stand up show from her experience of giving birth to a stillborn baby. “The upsetting bits are cushioned” she says, by the comedy. Conran “got hundreds of messages from people thanking me, sharing their stories. One lady in her 60s had told her adult children [about her own similar experience] and grieved for the first time.”  The Daily Annagram is a lacerating, hilarious, VERY sweary blog by a stand up comedian and writer called Anna. It’s mostly about the mess she and others have made of her life, and the way she pummels each fresh punchball of pain into anecdote is a master class in storytelling as survival skill. You cannot but wish her well.

Last week I was lucky enough to see comedian Mark Thomas with Palestinian colleagues in Showtime from the Frontline at Stratford Theatre Royal, London. Thomas and his colleague Sam Beale who teaches comedy impro ran a comedy workshop in the refugee city of Jenin, Palestine. Participants ranged from complete beginners to professional actors (“My dad insisted: Son, I want you to be a lawyer, an engineer, a doctor or a scientist!” “Dad,” I answered, “If I become an actor I can be all of those!” HIGNFY and Mock the Week please note: the class managed a better gender balance than you do, yes, in Palestine.) The compère at the graduation show was “the most depressed man in Palestine”; the Palestinian-Israeli founder of the theatre hosting the workshop had been murdered; most course participants had no chance of touring the UK with Thomas and their classmates. The audience fell spontaneously silent for a young man seen on video talking about how he’d like to play Romeo – but he was fatally shot before he could do so. You’d not think it promising ground for laughs…

…so of course the humour contained bleak moments. But comedy conventions like three elements (first element sets up a situation; second element reinforces/develops it; third element subverts it), clownish expressions and timing that held the audience in a trance made it first side splitting, then shocking, moving, funny again. An irony: it was similar to so much Jewish humour I have heard all my life, and indeed to humour from all over the world. At the post show discussion Faisal Abu Alhayjaa said : “You know, you Brits, you laugh at the same things we do, just in a quieter way.” Comedy is universal, even if we all have individual preferences. Asked about comedy in Palestine, Faisal said, “You know, we do not so much have a comedy tradition. But we have a very strong storytelling tradition, stronger than yours. And many of those stories have many funny bits inside.”

So let’s keep telling those stories. Some of us are bestselling professionals (a story I tell myself); some of us are just starting out, and some of us are still listening on our mother’s knees (I hope). But we are a storytelling species and if we can keep the storytelling going we may have a happy ending.

©Jessica Norrie 2018