No signal

In last night’s disturbing dream my phone was useless and I couldn’t communicate. Partner said: “Good premise for a crime novel.” I don’t want to write a crime novel, but as always a title came straight to mind. No signal covers 1) my blog hiatus 2) the rural disadvantage of partner’s house 3) physical and metaphorical aspects of lockdown, and 4) the event that stopped me blogging much and writing at all.

In January a dear relation, not elderly, had a stroke clinicians labelled catastrophic, overnight losing independence and professional, social and cultural involvement to massive brain damage, semi paralysis, and total speech loss. For weeks she had “no signal”. Now she smiles, shrugs, raises her eyebrows, taps one hand, and cries.

For two months we could barely signal back. Covid allowed only three hospital visits, justified to management as therapeutic. Discharge was to an understaffed, pack-em-in uncare home with photos of forty Covid victims prominent in the foyer. At my first “visit”, I balanced on a steep grass bank and gurned through a closed double-glazed window, probably terrifying a confused, pain-racked, depressed, non-verbal Charlotte. After two weeks, strictly timed fifteen-minute visits were allowed, when she cried and cried. I have told the regulating authorities…

Finding urgent, pleasanter, safer care with no previous knowledge of the sector, was difficult. It’s a buyer’s market, nursing homes having lost so many residents, but judging suitability when you can’t go inside to witness staff and residents interact is tricky. There’s the selling agent’s word for it, pre-Covid inspection reports and glossy brochures with more chintz than people. You can tell a lot from the smell, mutters a district nurse friend. In normal times.

Nor could we access the typically £82000 pa fees of a good home because Charlotte hadn’t appointed Lasting Power of Attorney (have YOU done this? It costs £80/£160 online and takes just a few weeks to come through). She couldn’t agree to LPA because she’d lost mental capacity so our only avenue was the Court of Protection. Even with an excellent solicitor this takes seven months and £4000+. So whatever your age please apply for LPA today, for your loved ones’ sakes! Without it, we can’t deal with Charlotte’s bank, maintain her house, access her phone or computer… or shut the bailiffs up. But hooray for the social worker who organised interim payment of home fees!

Identifying, informing, updating friends, navigating legal, financial and medical protocols takes hours. Though still without CoP status, a contradiction requires me to advocate for Charlotte as her Deprivation of Liberty Safeguard representative. Therein lies a moral minefield.

Amid the pandemic, all NHS staff dealt professionally and kindly with Charlotte, as far as we know. Yet it’s compartmentalised and random. Some individuals communicate with next-of-kin; others won’t until CoP is formalised. Doctors spent two days saving Charlotte’s life. Then she became the therapists’ responsibility. The excellent hospital team discharged her to the community team who visit rarely and tell me nothing. Emergency hospital admissions for IV treatment open communication black holes. True to form, our Etonian government guidelines for care homes are delayed, illogical and impractical. So Charlotte, who can currently be visited immediately during her frequent hospital stays, suffers ten lonely days of self-isolation whenever she returns “home” (which is a good and caring place, but, obviously, not the lovely house she can no longer access). Each time, the private speech therapy I’ve sourced is postponed and even on her birthday she couldn’t leave her room.

This prolonged whinge is my entirely selfish point of view. Writing from Charlotte’s would mean exploring the wrenching experience of a loved one more deeply than I can bear – it’s an imagined state of mind to be visited only in the small hours or small, safe stabs of trying-to-understand. So I divert my thoughts to all that must be done. To write her POV would also mean experimental language even more demanding than McGregor’s (below). There’d be pages of wailing pain, of being bypassed and misunderstood, occasional enjoyment of tastes (dysphagia permitting), embarrassment, exhaustion, depression – very common post stroke, frustration, boredom and loneliness and where’s the happy ending? Disabled readers might cancel it and they’d probably be right.

But this is a books and writing blog! Poignantly, my last chat with Charlotte was about a book review here. Stroke is common in life, less so in literature. The only one more physically serious than hers that I’ve read of is in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, also filmed. Dominique Bauby, in his forties, was riding a professional wave as editor-in-chief of Elle magazine when a stroke paralysed him almost completely. He could only dictate this memoir, letter by letter, by flicking his left eyelid. I could quote the whole thing… For obvious reasons it isn’t long, but it’s beautifully written/translated and extraordinary.

Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight is inspiring – see her TED talks on YouTube. This American brain scientist had a major stroke aged 37 and viewed her eight-year recovery as a unique research opportunity. She explains the medical jargon and her own psychology and cognition with clarity, humour and joie de vivre. A helpful checklist of carers’ dos and don’ts highlights the devastating damage stroke can cause. “Recovery was a decision I had to make a million times a day. Was I willing to put forth the effort to try?” If this exceptionally positive and informed young woman found it so exhausting, what hope is there for others? But at least our NHS, beleaguered though it may be, means a stroke victim needn’t try to remember which hospital her health insurance covers, mid-stroke.

In the UK the Stroke Association have cheap communications aids for recovering stroke victims, though little for Charlotte’s more severe condition. Bolte Taylor happily relearned from children’s books; others may feel patronised which is where the SA booklets come in.

I’ve reviewed Jon McGregor’s precise and moving writing before. In a happy coincidence for me, his latest novel, Lean Fall Stand provides the reassurance of finding my experience reflected in good fiction. I won’t name the stricken character as he’s introduced in a different role, the stroke a deus ex machina for the reader as well. Quoting McGregor’s language play would need more context than my space permits, but, never obscure, he has surprising fun with a victims’ conversation group, light relief (not parody) after the grimmer initial weeks. There’s sympathy for his carer’s reaction too, the weary, questioning love/unlove of a mostly absentee partner when sudden responsibility strikes hard at her own life.

Which is more or less where I started this post. As I write, the stroke related emails drift in… I hope that explains the recent absence of signals from me. Take care all.  

©Jessica Norrie 2021

Five glorious years!

WordPress tells me I’m five this week! Not a message I expected to see when I wrote my tentative Welcome in 2016. Right now I’m very preoccupied by what’s best described as a Demanding Family Event so will keep this post brief (at last! you sigh). It’s a quick rundown of the posts you and I liked best every year. Thank you for travelling with me; do please revisit and return, and I’ll do my best still to be writing for you (and me) in 2026.

2016: My most popular post with (for me) a whopping 1,357 views obviously struck a chord with the teaching profession I was about to leave. Read my thoughts on teaching writing at Back to the Writing Bored. I haven’t changed my mind! But the post that pleased me most was The Great Amazon Dinner Party because my first novel The Infinity Pool had done so well. If Shakespeare had sat SATs was aimed at the same audience as the writing bored. I’m also pleased to reread my memories of a wonderful workshop with Professor Marina Warner at Dartington, which led eventually to The Magic Carpet.

2017: Most popular post: The Best Independent Bookshop in London. Could be subtitled How to Bring up a Bookworm. If you are more or less raised in a good bookshop, your welcome to the world of words is assured. Runners up in my own mind are diversions into UK travelogue: an exploration of “my” corner of East London called The World in Four Short Blocks and Marsh Frogs Sing Loudly in the Ditches which came from a trip to the ancient Sussex town of Rye. I also wrote a little about cultural appropriation as I worried my way into The Magic Carpet. I wouldn’t dare start writing that book now, but it has its merits and I hope Getting It Right expresses the sensitive dilemma so many authors face.

2018: Most popular post: I was surprised but pleased for my German translator to find this was Sought and Found in Translation, after the publication of Der Infinity-Pool. But I also enjoyed exploring an unusual POV In a Nutshell, and was humbled and proud (if you can be both at once) to be asked to start a fortnightly books column for Smorgasbord, one of which is here. I kept that up for a year or so before asking to contribute more occasionally so that I could get on with my own writing. But I was so pleased to be asked and Sally and her crowd of co-bloggers have become good and supportive friends. Finally, although sometimes along with many of you I feel as though I Can’t be Bloggered, I did have a bit of fun giving a backward glance to Prologues.

2019: Most popular post: The Magic Carpet – Standby for Landing. This is one flight that hasn’t been cancelled so if you haven’t bought it yet… I also had the interesting experience of a blog tour in 2019, and there are a couple of posts about that. Not sure what I was doing otherwise, there seems to be a six month gap in blog posts.

2020: Most popular post: What Authors Don’t Bargain For. As when I struck a chord with all those angry teachers, I seem to get the biggest audience when voicing a collective grievance. Hope it makes people think! It was a sad spring, 2020, and here I am saying Au Revoir to Europe and just two months later worrying about how to write fiction in an age of pandemic. I hope you’ve all stayed safe and well into…

2021: …when as I say an ongoing family event has taken most of my time and attention, and my most popular post so far is from people revisiting my Easter Eggheads quiz of a previous year. My post on a workshop with Sophie Hannah did well though, and if you look back through there are others on writing courses each year. I’ve learned a lot in five years. Please stay with me, even if we’re both erratic, for the next five.

©Jessica Norrie 2021

A non-fiction selection box

I mostly get my non-fiction fixes from news and media, but by mid 2020 I’d become tired of Covid related items. I wanted more varied food for thought, and entertainment. Also Novel 3, despite wonderful, polite, positive comments (“a beautiful and bracing read” said an editor from one top publisher) wasn’t finding a contract. I needed to reconsider what makes a book readable and saleable, whatever the subject. So I turned to five popular non-fiction bestsellers published or revised since 2018.

In my school chemistry and biology lessons, I pushed worms aimlessly round Petri dishes, larked about with Bunsen burners and stayed ignorant. Now being stalked by Covid rang alarm bells. I’ve passed (my) existence in this warm wobble of flesh and yet taken it almost entirely for granted. It was time I learned how my body works and I decided Bill Bryson’s The Body: A Guide for Occupants would be a good teacher. He is full of awe and wonder: The brain exists in silence and darkness, like a dungeoned prisoner. It has never felt warm sunshine or a soft breeze…and yet, everything else (in your body) is just plumbing and scaffolding.” I can’t remember all the details, partly because as Bryson tells me, my ageing cells are pre-programmed to die. But the book has an excellent index and I should have time to reread it because compared to other animals, we are awfully good at surviving.” Bryson is always a comforting presence for grim times.

I bought Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race months ago, because I thought I should tbh. Having been paid extra in urban schools to develop diversity policies, I smugly thought I knew what Reni Eddo-Lodge would say in this book derived originally from blogposts. (Although I did at least realise my white person’s racism awareness came from study that I could drop at will rather than from personal daily experience.) Then I heard her on Woman’s Hour, when she took the UK non-fiction number 1 slot as Bernadine Evaristo headed fiction, saying this double black success was more bitter than sweet in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in the US. She writes from a perspective white people can only imagine. She’s rightly angry that the aggression that killed Stephen Lawrence in 1993 is still rampant. She dismisses handwringing like mine. She links feminism, class, and racism. She relents somewhat, suggesting how white handwringers can help. She does see positives ahead, though rightly commenting (and note my preamble above): “So much of touring this book has involved regulating other people’s feelings”. Anyone who wants to comment on race should read this book first and remember, as quoted: We are here because you were there”. I’d be amazed if your comments didn’t alter in the light of it.

“Something you may not ever have given any thought to is how you would fund a criminal defence. But you should.” The Secret Barrister also began as a series of articles about injustice. This anonymous practising barrister-author is alarmed by how little the public understand the law. He’s amusing, informative and angry. The system can destroy, bankrupt, or madden anyone: defendant, witness, legal professional or plaintiff. This book explains anomalies, anachronisms, and the effect of underfunding, overwork and random priorities from headline chasing governments, analyses serial offending and reveals shocking court and prison conditions. Defending a client in the magistrates’ court is often like “pitching to the admissions board of a 1980s country club”. Politicians and sentencing guidelines get even more stick. This isn’t (mostly) a dry read. He’s compassionate towards the accused and passionate on their right to a fair defence. Individual case histories, humour and the lucidity of a disillusioned expert channel Dickens, but 150 years later, our legal institutions should serve and be served better. “How we treat..ordinary men and women who have been fed into the justice machine, mangled, battered, confined and, years later, spat back out onto the streets, is inexcusable.”

We all need light relief. I find The Crown entertaining and, never a royalist, don’t really care whether it’s a true account. So I lapped up Lady in Waiting. Author Anne Glenconnor grew up in a stately home so huge that raw eggs in a bain-marie would be perfectly boiled by the time a footman had carried them from the kitchen to the nursery. Her account of working for Princess Margaret isn’t exactly warts and all – the worst you hear of Margaret is that she was so fascinated by everyday gadgets she once gave another lady-in-waiting a loo brush for Christmas. “’I noticed you didn’t have one when I came to stay.’ In fact, Jean had hidden the loo brush when Princess Margaret had visited and was rather upset by the gesture.” The reader is granted fly-on-the-wall privileges and this fly was buzzing, especially on the trips to Mustique.

The Five: The Untold Lives of Women Killed by Jack the Ripper isn’t (quite) as miserable as it sounds. Historian Hallie Rubenhold, one of whose other books became the TV series Harlots, deliberately doesn’t focus on the Victorian murderer. I regularly pass the London pub where some of his victims were last seen and the advertised tourist walks and memorabilia are ghoulish. Rubenhold remembers the women instead, describing “respectable” backgrounds, not the prostitutes the press dubbed them, with skills, children and circumstances shared by thousands (I recently discovered a relation who also had to leave a violent husband, only a few miles from Whitechapel at the time the Ripper was active.) Each individual woman is, in a sense, brought back to life in these accounts based on meticulous research and contemporary evidence, having first been driven like piles deeper and deeper into the ground in order to bear the weight of everyone else’s demands”. Despite The Five selling so well, the pattern continues. The BBC was recently heavily criticised for trailing a documentary series about Oscar Pistorius without once mentioning his murdered girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, and in fiction we still analyse Othello’s tragedy more than Desdemona’s.

How could five such different books have bestseller appeal? Well, they all have variety. There is tragedy as well as royal gossip in Anne Glenconnor’s life; science and wisdom well as humour in Bill Bryson’s bodyscape. Humour lightens the injustices found in the court room and Eddo-Lodge has calm suggestions to balance her anger. The Ripper victims’ stories include fascinating social history of homes and workplaces, clothes and speech, and unexpectedly colourful episodes in apparently ordinary lives. Effective popular non-fiction spins yarns like any novel and plotting is key. Glenconnor is the heroine of her own story, childhood to old age. Bryson’s journey round the body includes medical heroes and villains, good and bad microbes, happy accidents and fateful events. My other choices have the compelling interest, emotional involvement and quest for resolution of well recounted true crime. These are valuable models for the fiction writer too.

With Christmas coming, I hope you’ll find something to your taste in my selection box and I’d be happy to hear your own non-fiction choices.   

©Jessica Norrie 2020

Girl, Woman, Author

Girl, Woman, Author

            blogger Jessica was first and foremost an author except on imposter syndrome days and ran her blog mainly to keep her writing hand in     

            having admired Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other she decided to try writing an autobiographical blogpost in Evaristo’s style 

            which is harder than it looks, as each sentence in Girl, Woman, Other has its own paragraph with no capital letters to start or full stops, although you can use other punctuation like commas   

from page 10, UK Penguin paperback edition

            so Jessica made each paragraph a separate block and indented first lines as Evaristo does (please excuse inconsistent indents due to sustained opposition from the WordPress Block Editor; also note links to Jessica’s previous blogposts don’t open in a new tab although links to outside sites do and Jessica who is a writer not a coder is flummoxed and frustrated by this as it used to be simple to do)         

            it was a toss-up between trying the Evaristo style and writing another post about mothers and daughters because the first one was four years ago now and she was excited because her own daughter, not seen since before lockdown, was coming to stay

              anyway that’s all some weeks ago now 

              the stay went well and it was lovely to see each other 

              Jessica returned to Girl, Woman, Other and realised how refreshing it is to read so much straightforward back story (memo to any creative writing tutor she’s ever met that she’ll put in as much as she likes from now on)

    it gave her hope for her own future books

             the reading pleasure she had once she’d agreed to Evaristo’s style reminded her of when she stopped fighting Jon McGregor’s narrative terms in Reservoir 13 and just rolled with them

             (although it was restful later to turn to the conventional narrative of The Confessions of Frannie Langton, which along with the Evaristo gives good insight into the experiences of black women in the UK both historically and now)

            Girl, Woman, Other also has a particularly useful section near the end which discusses the pronouns you can now use for variously gendered people in a witty and clear way possibly only a writer who is herself from a minority group could get away with (although what defines a minority when you really think about it?)

              but that section was very helpful as Jessica is now meeting many people who identify as non-binary

              black women of all backgrounds, sexualities, generations and classes feature in each section of Girl, Woman, Other and because Evaristo uses the same neutral style to tell all their stories (unless Jessica has missed something) the novel gives the appearance of comparing their lived experiences objectively

              and those of some black men too 

              it led Jessica to buy another recent bestseller, Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No longer Talking to White People about Race although she must admit she hasn’t started reading it yet

             returning to the autobiography, Jessica started writing for pleasure in around 2010 if you don’t count her efforts as a small child and then a teenager

             after university her writing was temporarily submerged under the stress and frustration of her early teaching career as she discovered she really wasn’t cut out for life in schools but soldiered on until maternity leave gave her time to qualify as a freelance translator

             so where many women worry having small children will stunt their creativity in other spheres Jessica found it gave her space to breathe (she was lucky because her children inherited extremely easy behaviour from their father or at least that’s what her mother-in-law put it down to)

             translation didn’t pay the bills so she returned to teaching and this time got a good fit with schools and management, progressing to work in so-called school improvement and teacher training

              in 2008 she started going on holiday to a mad and wonderful place which inspired her first novel The Infinity Pool which was published in 2015

The Infinity Pool on location

              encouraged by success including an Australian no 1 listing she embarked on The Magic Carpet which she hoped would illustrate the multiplicity of different stories any teacher must take into account when responding to the pupils who come through the door of any class anywhere

               it had to have a diverse cast because she had never learnt or taught in any all-white schools or lived in a monocultural neighbourhood and that meant some narration in the voices of characters whose ethnicities Jessica doesn’t share, which seemed more acceptable in 2016 when she started writing it than now

                 she can only say she researched it as thoroughly as she could both formally and informally and if anything is inaccurate please let her know, no offence is intended but Jessica is a white European author so The Magic Carpet must absolutely not be taken as “own voice” except in the sections narrated by Teresa

                   having read Evaristo Jessica also now understands that using third person for the characters whose background she doesn’t share would have lessened the chance of readers thinking they might be written by an “own voice” author

                 The Magic Carpet was published in 2019 by which time Jessica had been retired two years or is it three, amazing how the years start to blur

                  Jessica’s agent is now submitting a third novel to publishers which is based on women’s voices in a small village

                 while Jessica tries to summon up inspiration for a fourth novel

                 her respect has soared for Evaristo whose style appeared easy to imitate but is actually very difficult because not only do you have to pick out the salient facts and a few intriguing details to encapsulate an entire life past present and potential future but you have to do it in one sentence paragraphs that flow, retain the readers’ interest and win major prizes

                Jessica’s life isn’t as interesting as the lives of the characters in Girl, Woman, Other but it’s been a worthwhile experiment (the life and this blogpost) and of course it isn’t finished yet (the life)

                  it has been what it’s been

                  it is what it is

©Jessica Norrie 2020 in homage to Bernadine Evaristo and defiance of the WordPress Block Editor

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

What do you mean, in italics?

Well that’s annoying. I wanted to use italics in my title and WordPress won’t let me. Maybe if I upgrade to the paid version… meanwhile I’ll put quotes in this post, which I’d normally have italicised, in purple so the original italics still show up.

The word italics comes from Latin. The print style was named for the Venetian printer who used it first. The adoption of italic fonts has a fascinating history that leads the procrastinating blogger down many Googling byways. Do explore them one wet Sunday afternoon.

We use italics for emphasis. Just as some people wave their hands about more than others, so do some authors, often putting their italics into their characters’ mouths to avoid seeming too histrionic themselves. Jane Austen, brought up to discreet deportment and quiet speech, can be vicious with italics:

italics p & P 2 (2)
Pride and Prejudice, Penguin edition, Australia 2008

Nowadays writers are advised against adverbs. It would never do for Yazz, in Benardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, to think something “sarcastically”, but Evaristo suggests sarcasm with italics: once she’s graduated and working, she’s going to sell her house, correction, their house, which is worth a small fortune thanks to Mum’s gentrification of Brixton  By the way that’s not my missing full stop – Evaristo uses punctuation sparingly. But she relishes italics, as when Yazz’s Mum forbears to mention The Boyfriend, glimpsed when he dropped her off in his car. So much suspicion, pride, worry, judgement conveyed by italics and a couple of capital letters. 

My italics for the title acknowledge someone else wrote Girl, Woman, Other (shame). Fortunately Evaristo isn’t referring to the film The Boyfriend or confusion might arise. At least I’m assuming she isn’t, I’ve only just started it. Could be a bookblogger trap…

Authors may choose italics to differentiate between a character’s inner thoughts or dreams and what they say aloud, and also to differentiate timelines or points of view, clarifying them for the reader. Unhelpfully, I can’t find examples on my shelves now. I hope one  turns  up before this blog post goes out. I do find whole pages and paragraphs of italics hard to read and wish authors with split timelines/narrators would find some other way round the problem. I definitely read one recently. Maybe I threw it out for that reason.

Italics may be used for a recurring phrase, reminding us of what’s at stake or a character’s obsession. Olive Kitteridge‘s visit to her son in New York is punctuated by the neighbour’s parrot repeating Praise the Lord. Italics differentiate a letter or document from the rest of the text, or economically summarise occasions when the same thing was repeated. These examples are from The Confessions of Frannie Langton, by Sara Collins, whose short prologue and epilogue are also italicised.

italics F langton 2
The Confessions of Frannie Langton, Penguin, 2019

italics Frannie langton
The Confessions of Frannie Langton, Penguin 2019

Agatha Christie’s Poirot, stereotypical histrionic foreigner, lives and breathes italics.

Italics Poirot
Harper Collins, 2013

You’ll notice Poirot’s italicised French, like the Latin in the previous example. Italics of “foreign” words could mean three things: i) you do know what this means, dear readers ii) work it out from the context or iii) here’s something to look up, dunce. Here’s an extraordinarily basic example from Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Society feels…the highest respectability is of much less importance than the possession of a good chef.”

Indie authors decide from themselves how much to italicise “foreign” words, preferably with professional editorial advice, and publishers have varying house styles. The trend is towards italicising less. Some authors reasonably object to “othering”. When words their characters use in daily discourse are italicised, it has the effect of making them suddenly shout “Look at this exotic word!” mid-flow. This article argues, with entertaining, informative examples, why such an approach  simply won’t do in a world where all cultures and idioms deserve equal respect. I found it on Ask a Book Editor (Facebook) and reposted it on Writers for Diversity (Facebook too). On both sites it elicited a lively, helpful thread with much food for thought. 

A rule of thumb is to explain meaning either directly or through context, unless you know the words have been incorporated into the language you’re writing in (check a good dictionary if unsure). Here’s The Song of Achilles, elegantly whisking the reader over the obstacle, and another example from The Braid by Laetitia Colombani, itself translated from French, which I think could have omitted the explanation as the context is clear:

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The Song of Achilles, Bloomsbury 2017

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The Braid, Picador 2020
In The Magic Carpet, about five families of different heritages, I didn’t italicise pakoras because I expect my readers are familiar with Indian (umbrella term) food. I did italicise and explain the musical instrument names the first time because the children they’re given to didn’t know them yet either. Afterwards those words are in Roman print, not to break the flow any more than necessary. I may reduce the italics more, since reading the article I refer to above.

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The Magic Carpet, Amazon 2019

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The Magic Carpet, Amazon 2019

I’ve learnt something from writing this blog that’s probably obvious but needed spelling out for me. Too many italics over-egg the pudding. Like flouncy curtains or thick make-up, CAPITALS or exclamation marks!!! Flicking through my books I found the writers I most admire use hardly any. I’m not saying the examples above are bad, the books they come from are wonderful in their different ways or I wouldn’t include them. But less is definitely more. I suspect my Novel 3 has rather a lot. Inside I’m thinking: is that why it hasn’t been snapped up by a publisher yet? 

©Jessica Norrie 2020

A good deal of author news!

It’s funny how the sense of myself as a “real” writer comes and goes. The smallest thing can puncture my self-belief. But this has been an excellent week and I can hold my head high. When I looked up my ALCS payments they were much improved following a dip last season; my agent said Novel 3 is ready to pitch to publishers; and the French translation of The Infinity Pool appears almost ready to publish after a hiatus in which the translator quite reasonably got on with earning her living. In more good news, after many nominations by my agent, The Magic Carpet ebook has been selected for a UK Kindle Monthly Deal. Please tell your friends that from today for a whole month they can fly my magic carpet for 99p. Especially tell the parents, grandparents, child care workers, city dwellers and teachers – it’s uncanny that I wrote about urban families struggling and interacting as they cope with a home/school project and now here so many of you are homeschooling!

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99p for the ebook for a month!
In an aside for fellow writers, it was selection for this sort of deal that pushed The Infinity Pool up the charts back in 2015. I think Amazon also advertise them, whereas normally we indie authors are left to sink or swim, so I’m hoping for better visibility, more reviews and improved sales. Being in a deal may also mean it’s price matched globally – worldwide friends, it may be only 99¢ or a very small amount of whatever your local currency is. (Please let me know – if I look at non UK sites I don’t necessarily see the correct data.)

To anyone still wondering whether they’ll get good value for their 99p, another affirming thing to happen this week was a BRILLIANT new review from bookblogger Felicity Grace Terry at Pen and Paper. I’m quoting it at length, not to omit too much of her enthusiasm. But do visit her blog for a refreshing style and good recommendations and not least to pay homage to a bookblogger who’s been at it more than 10 years! And please do comment when you get there – I know so well how much bloggers appreciate comments.

{OOH! A story about the telling of stories. For us bibliophiles things don’t get much better than this, right?}

…I just don’t know where to begin sharing all of the aspects that made it such a joy to read .

…Hats off to the author for giving us such a memorable and authentic cast of characters. That she gave them all (both as individuals and family units) such a unique (and thankfully stereotype and cliche free) voice; that each relationship (indeed every event) was written with such depth, it wasn’t long before I came to invest in them (and) they became as friends and neighbours…

Insightful, heart warming and thought provoking…

Not just well researched but heartfelt; the author’s knowledge and love of teaching young children apparent. That the novel explores just how the issues adults seek to keep from children believing they are shielding them can have a profound effect is just one of the many, many things that, characters and plot in general aside, made The Magic Carpet such an engaging and, yes, important read for me.

SUMMED UP IN A SENTENCE … The utterly engrossing story of a society trying to assimilate different cultures, backgrounds and faiths peopled by characters you cannot help but invest in, The Magic Carpet is every bit a story of our times.

Enormous thanks to Felicity, and thank YOU for your attention. Please do spread the news and I’ll report back later whether there’s still gold in them there deals the way there was last time. Meanwhile stay safe, all of you. And that’s as near as I’ll go to mentioning l*ckd*wn.

MC Pb cover jpeg - Copy

©Jessica Norrie 2020

Au revoir, not goodbye

Today is one of the saddest days of my life. That is not “remoaning”, but mourning. If the Brexiteers can have a party in Parliament Square (though it doesn’t sound much fun, with soft drinks only and Ann Widdecombe for guest speaker), I can have a wake. Parties are for happy things – weddings, birthdays, to celebrate a new job or launch a book, start retirement or shout about a jubilee. A wake is to say goodbye to something or someone – millions of people – you are forced to part from by circumstances beyond your control. Usually that means death, but in this case it’s a vile mixture of xenophobia, narrow mindedness, triumphalism, misguided nostalgia, imperialism without an empire, and manipulation. Also gullibility, which is easier to empathise with – we’ve all been fooled over something in our lives.

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So today’s post, because it falls on the day the United Kingdom (I wonder, united for how long?) leaves the EU, isn’t about books or writing and I won’t share it in my more usual book circles. Instead it’s a personal expression of despair, a chance to mark this day that I couldn’t ignore while I have this tiny platform from which to communicate my views. However, I have written about European books in Reading for Remainers and More Reading for Remainers. Perhaps if I’d called them Reading for Leavers, some would have been swayed. I dislike the name calling and abuse that Brexiteers and Remainers throw at each other as much as I dislike the insults leavers throw at Europe. Not having access to a good education does not make you stupid, and some who have had the best education money can buy persist in making stupid decisions (I’m looking at you, David Cameron). But it’s on record that the higher their education level the less likely a voter was to opt for Brexit. Maybe the authors I was talking about, with their range of thought, their ability to empathise with varying characters and to make stories out of moral dilemmas and historical lessons, would have been a bit much for the Brexit leaders, who in turn manipulated the confusion of so many others.

I’m not necessarily any brighter than they are, but I had the advantage of being taught French by my mother, who had stayed on a war-ruined French farm as a paying guest in the 1940s. I studied French, lived in Paris and Dijon, made French friends I still see forty years later. I added Spanish. My daughter studied Spanish, Italian and German. I visited her in Zaragoza and Palermo. I went to Poland for work and received the warmest of welcomes, as warm as the ones I received in Greece even at the time they were being squeezed so pitilessly by the EU (which is by no means perfect, but you improve institutions from within, not by throwing a hissy fit and stomping off). My first novel has appeared in German and what a pleasure it was to work with the translator. Europe isn’t just for holidays but I’ve had some fantastic trips since starting this blog and invite you along with me to revisit Barcelona,  Lisbon (twice), Vienna (twice), Milan and Paris – not sure why I didn’t write blog posts about those two.

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My European friends in London are rightly saddened, angered, bewildered. Why should an award winning chef who’s paid taxes and employed staff for 23 years be refused settled status? Why should my French friend’s mother, living here since the 1930s, have to jump through the bureaucratic hoops of applying for settled status in her 93rd year? Why should child refugees now be kept from their parents, a casualty of changing laws that this untrustworthy government says will be “sorted out later”? Why, when there is more to unite than divide us, should ties be broken, trade deals stopped, links wrecked, friendship and help refused, cultures sneered at? Why would any sane nation reject easy trade conditions with its nearest geographical neighbours, and complicate collaboration on responding to health, science, environmental challenges which recognise no borders? Why would any sensible individual want to reinstate roaming charges, reject grants for anti-poverty projects and regeneration, create obstacles to staffing our farms, hospitals, restaurants and so much else? None of this is in my name.

How ironic that this week also saw Holocaust Memorial Day. I went to a wonderful concert at King’s Place, with Raphael Wallfisch the cellist. His mother, interviewed here,  survived Belsen because she played cello for the Nazis. Where I grew up in Finchley, North London, my primary school class was around 50% Jewish. None of my school friends had grandparents. They had all died in the camps, after sending my friends’ parents over on the Kindertransport. Would the British shelter those children now? My own parents both had their education truncated by the war but were lucky enough to be just too young for call up; my father-in-law was a POW; my friend’s father traumatized at 23 after driving the ammunition truck behind one that was blown up during the D-day landings. Hitler had to be stopped; whether war was the only means to stop him it’s now too late to say. But the EU was founded to prevent another war in Europe, and has been successful. Thank you to Guy Verhofstadt MEP who has done his best to keep us together as citizens , thank you to Jolyon Maugham and others campaigning for associate EU citizenship; thank you to Terry Reintke MEP who has set up the UK Friendship Group in the EU Parliament. Thank you to many, many others. Please wait for us, we do care about you, and we look forward to a day when we can move freely around Europe again with another freedom – the ability we’ll have won back, through dignified, well informed, unaggressive campaigning, to enjoy being both British and European again. There is one such campaign here: please consider joining.  

©Jessica Norrie 2020

The right to write

My blogging friend Mary Smith commented last post, re Edna O’Brien’s Girl, on controversy surrounding white authors using the voice of black characters. Girl was so fast paced and compelling I finished it in three sittings. Then, looking it up on Goodreads, I found a question from a member:

Who else thinks a young, black woman would have been a better authorial choice for this topic/concept?

There were three very different answers (plus the point that authors choose topics for their fiction rather than the other way round).

1. If we start to say that only young black women can write about young black women, where does that eventually take us? To more constraints on what women can and can’t do and there’s more than enough of them out there already.

2. I feel uncomfortable with a white woman telling this story and making any profit from it whatsoever.

3. (recommending a non fiction account): Helon Habila may not be a woman, but he is a highly regarded author and poet from Nigeria.

46195759Girl is told from the point of view of one of the 276 schoolgirls abducted from a boarding school in Chibok, Nigeria in April 2014, the best known of many such abductions. To me the novel is less about a black-only experience than one example of  what throughout history and all over the world men have done to women in the name of religion, power or both. Regardless of race or age, Edna O’Brien is a woman who, raised in Catholic Ireland, knows all about repression. Maybe this makes her a better “authorial choice” than a Nigerian man who would not experience rape or forced marriage in the same way, menstruate, become pregnant or breastfeed, all significant in the book? But, if we discourage men from imagining such lived experiences, how can we expect them to develop empathy? Maybe O’Brien’s just a different authorial choice. She’s quoted on the British Council Literature website: “Words seemed and still seem an alchemy, and story the true conductor of life, of lives.

I’m not sure you can open up the world with modern levels of migration and travel, then criticise eagle-eyed writers for using the material they find there. More stories become available. An author can only select one and write about that or the boundaries become too fluid. Even an author of the calibre and experience of O’Brien still needs a manageable story, a heroine, a resolution. She was 84 when the Chibok abductions happened; I do salute the research she did, her energy and will to shine a light on injustice in the way she knew best.

The example of male violence she chose is by black African men on black African women and children. If words are an alchemy and story does conduct lives, they should be a power anyone can develop. Black female writers are also theoretically free to use any subject matter they like, but they may have less chance of becoming writers in the first place, for educational and financial reasons, health, class, gender restrictions… all this will also vary depending whether they are rural, urban,  African, Caribbean or western black women. In 2019 they still have less chance of getting published by a wary, traditionally white industry than Edna O’Brien who was working for the publisher Hutchinson when her first novel, The Country Girls, was commissioned (!) in 1960. (Yes, dream on.) Were white people even having this conversation then, when authors were arguably less familiar with “other” cultures? Anyway after six decades of success no one was going to turn down her newest novel, whether set in Ireland, Nigeria or outer space. Whereas, any quick Google of publishing rates for authors of colour confirms the findings of this Publishing Research Quarterly article:

The narrative that there are just are not enough authors of colour writing is (…) used to explain their lack of inclusion in the publishing industry; however, numerous authors of colour have countered this, saying they have struggled to get agents or, if they do have agents, publishing deals. (…) many authors of colour felt pressured to write identity books (…) that reflected their ethnic or cultural heritage or to draw upon cultural stereotypes—in order to be, or continue being, published. (…). These books often had to cover topics such as “racism, colonialism or postcolonialism as if these were the primary concerns of all BAME people”. 

We all struggle to get agents, and if we are unknown as writers and not celebs in any other sphere the agents then struggle to get us published. But this and other research, for example carried out by We Need Diverse Books, confirms the more boxes you tick out of being minority ethnic, disabled, female, working class, unemployed, mentally or physically ill, LGBQT+, non Western, non white… the less likely you are to be published, and the more you are needed by readers.

When, in 1969, man walked on the moon, the boys at school were fascinated. I wasn’t: the protagonists wore boring spacesuits not pretty frocks, and I didn’t understand the physics. As a girl it made less impact on me, while my male contemporaries still remember it in great detail. I wasn’t reflected, didn’t feel I owned it. The closest the career suggestions I got came to astronaut was air hostess. So people of all backgrounds and abilities must appear in books. Everyone needs to be reflected and have ownership, everyone needs the opportunity to learn to write and publish them. The quality of writing is still paramount – you wouldn’t drive across a bridge built by hairdressers in a car designed by a first year apprentice, and equally writing is a craft that needs skill, training, practice and reward. It must say something interesting and say it well. There must be the freedom to write about anything and anyone, to use the “alchemy of words” to conduct anyone’s life or lives, and nobody should get published without redrafting, editing and perfecting. BAME writers should be free of having to write only about BAME people’s primary concerns, but if that’s true it follows that O’Brien too may write about what she likes.

Studies suggest that reading some kinds of fiction makes human beings more compassionate, enabling them to see life through other eyes. We have centuries of opportunity imbalance to correct, but let’s do it by bringing opportunities for diverse writers up to the levels enjoyed by white, cis, heterosexual, able bodied financially resourced middle class writers, not by building barriers to what each group may write about. Not by creating exclusive pockets that only insiders may occupy, but by welcoming everybody’s efforts to write about everybody else, even if some of us have difficulty and even pain recognising what they produce.

I did worry whether I knew my characters when writing The Magic Carpet and published it in trepidation, opinions having become more forthright since I started it in 2016. Last year an Asian-American YA author withdrew her work from publication following fierce online objections to how it was perceived to depict slavery. The RWA (Romance Writers of America) is embroiled in argument over writing judged racist. So I had grounds for worrying I’d be criticised (fine) or trolled (not fine) for representing characters from backgrounds not my own. Suffice to repeat my characters are fictional, from five different backgrounds which by definition can’t all reflect mine, and were researched with colleagues and friends from those backgrounds as well as other sources. I couldn’t have written about London children otherwise, since in 2016 when the book’s set, the primary school population, depending on area, had between 33-94% ethnic minority* pupils and between 14-75% bilingual or multilingual users. My intention was to respect and celebrate this, but if readers find factual errors I’m open to corrections and ready to discuss how I’ve made my fictional characters think and feel. Whew! *This means not White UK heritage and I’m not happy with the “otherness” of the term.

Zadie Smith brilliantly defended writing in and of different voices in the New York Review of Books in October. 3711Unlike me, she’s of Jamaican/English  mixed heritage; like me, she grew up in London. My school friends were Jewish, or of Indian, Turkish, Greek and Black Caribbean heritage; my plumber was born in Pakistan, my solicitor is Greek Cypriot, my doctor Australian, the man who laid my garden turf Moldovan. I have this hinterland to draw on for research which I wouldn’t have if I’d grown up in rural middle England. Does that give me more right to write about multi-ethnic character casts? Or should I have used a sensitivity reader? I may explore that another time.

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Evaristo shared her Booker prize with Margaret Atwood.

Let’s hope as more diverse authors get through publishing doors, more points of view will be heard. There are creative writing programmes, scholarships and competitions open to specific age, ethnic and income groups as well as to everybody (good luck scrolling through the enormous list on the links above!) It will take a while for these to redress the balance – the Coretta Scott King Prize had already been going 48 years when the PN article I quote appeared,  the Lambda Literary Awards (LGBTQ) started in 1989, the relatively tiny Barbellion Prize (for writing by ill or disabled authors or on that subject) has only just launched. But doors once opened will not close. A young Nigerian undergraduate on the last writing course I attended was writing a fierce, passionate, difficult book set in the Biafran war and the present day. Perhaps her book will be published. Perhaps next year a black woman will win the Booker Prize all to herself.

What to conclude? It’s an inexhaustible topic and I’m exhausted. I think people should be able to talk, read and write about anything and everything, but it must be sensitive and not incite hatred. Subject to that, everyone has the right to write. If they intend to try publishing what they write, they must ensure they’ve researched it thoroughly. However, in a capitalist world we must be realistic. Every good writer has the right to self-publish, and every really good writer whose returns will cover their production costs should have an equal opportunity to be published by a traditional publisher. Some traditional publishers have started efforts to increase the diversity of both their workforce and their authors; it’s well overdue and the world is watching. The right to write is everyone’s; the right to publish should depend on quality alone.

© Jessica Norrie 2020