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

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

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

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

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

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

Games for readers and writers: when main characters play hide and seek.

How hard can it be to find the main character (MC) in a novel? No prizes for David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, Mrs Dalloway. Playwrights may play tricks: Julius Caesar dies in Act 1,  we’re left Waiting for Godot who may not even exist, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. But novels are easy.

Or are they? Even the classics can fool us. Are the four Little Women equally important? As an avid bookworm and would-be writer I should have identified with Jo, but the recent very good film confirmed what I’d suspected since childhood. Amy leads the pack.

Some successful modern novels deliberately make it hard to identify the MC. The reader can be tricked even when the name’s in the title. Madeline Miller’s beautiful  The Song of Achilles (2011) is, you would think, the story of Achilles. But it’s told by his 11250317life companion Patroclus. From inside Patroclus’ head, we experience his compelling conflicts and joys, although Achilles’ story is the more glorious and dramatic. So which is the main character? (Digression: Miller makes them so lifelike she dispels the myth that classical history is for Eton posh boys. Do try this unputdownable yarn featuring palaces, caves, love, death, war, the sea, women both unfortunate and powerful, interference from the gods and some daring plot changes.)

43890641._sy475_Hamnet (Maggie O’Farrell, 2019) was Shakespeare’s son, one of three children. The novel begins from Hamnet’s point of view but for a unarguable reason it doesn’t continue that way. From about a third in it’s more about his relations and his part in their lives. Hamnet’s mother’s point of view takes up the most space, among others. So is she the main character? Or is the MC still the eponymous hero, or even William Shakespeare because without him we wouldn’t know this family existed or have so much detail of their daily lives?

10376392._sx318_sy475_Monica Ali’s Untold Story (2007) poses a similar question. As it opens, three friends are at a birthday tea in Middle America. The narrative presents them as all apparently of equal status. The fourth guest, Lydia, doesn’t turn up. When we do meet her later, it turns out she’s crucial. But she’s not the childless suburban divorcee they think they’ve made friends with. She was born a UK aristocrat who had an unhappy marriage with the heir to the throne. Later, she escaped paparazzi hounding to live under the radar in this backwater. Princess Diana is never mentioned by name, but she looms on every page, through references to recognisable incidents, characters and dresses from “Lydia’s” former life. The reader doesn’t need telling who the character is based on; there would be no Untold Story without Diana. So who is the main character (and who’s that on this cover?) Remember, outside fiction “MC” stands for Master of Ceremonies.

39346652._sy475_These three authors play highly skilled hide and seek with their MCs within the accessible literary fiction genre. Going downmarket (absolutely no disrespect) M W Craven’s 2018 detective novel The Puppet Show (2018) is an MC master class. Disillusioned detective Washington Poe appears on every page and we travel with him. We know only what Poe knows, experience all incidents alongside him. We see the world through Poe’s jaundiced eyes, share his bafflement on bad days and recover with him later. The conclusions we reach are Poe’s conclusions. So whether we like him or not, we empathize with him because he’s the most interesting and immediate character. Which is great news for Craven, since The Puppet Show is the first of a Washington Poe series. His map is the one to follow if those of us toiling on writing’s lower slopes are to avoid losing our MC at base camp.

The idea for this post came from reading a friend’s ms. She tells me the main character is Anna, her narrator who’s preoccupied by a younger man, Zoltán. From inside Anna’s head, we learn about Zoltán mainly through what he tells her – and he’s reticent by nature. Even so, the reader has a much more vivid impression of Zoltán, because Anna’s character/events arc is vague while Zoltán’s story is dramatic and emotional. Anna is hiding within an otherwise clearly written story, and that simply ain’t right for a main character. (These aren’t their “real” names. I’m happy to do ms critiques but I’d never blog about recognisable details before they’re published.)

One confusion can cause so many others we have to abandon the game. Let’s not mince words: hiding the MC can also mean losing the plot (reader’s nightmare) or muddying the genre (writer’s, agent’s, publisher’s, marketing nightmare).

MC on windowsill (3)

Anyway do as I say, not as I did. Writing with the blissful freedom of not having studied the rules, I thought my Infinity Pool was clear enough, but one review complained the MC vanishes and reappears. Then I couldn’t decide between The Magic Carpet‘s narrators so hung on to five of them (with clearly separated chapters for each voice.) My third novel, currently blocking publisher’s inboxes, does have one clear leading voice, but there was an early struggle between three characters and for months the least suitable muscled to the fore.

I’ve made a vow: Novel 4 will learn from Washington Poe. My MC will announce her/him/their self on page 1 and not leave your sight until The End. The next task is to make them interesting enough for you to stay that long. But that’s another story.

©Jessica Norrie 2020

Turning to crime

There are two new gumshoes on the block. It would be a crime not to investigate them.

gumshoes

A good detective always looks for connections. Both these books are the first in a new crime series highlighting cities and the parts of cities you may not otherwise visit (especially now). Both are launching during this pandemic. Both authors have journalism backgrounds. The first reported from Sarajevo and the camera in his story is positioned much as a sniper would be. The second author once reported for Scotland Yard and there is a certain world weary delivery to his narration: I wasn’t feeling half as cool as I was making out, but I knew enough to keep a clear head and leave the worrying to later. Both new investigators are operating on foreign soil: Juan Camarón, who was brought up in Spain by a Cuban father, finds himself in Glasgow and Daniel Leicester is an Englishman in Bologna. Both authors make good use of the possibilities this sets up for misreading a situation but also understanding it more objectively, for mistrust and also misplaced confidence, and for light relief too. One of the murder victims Camarón investigates is called William McGonagall, but he doesn’t recognise the name. (Dismemberment, albeit fictional, seems an unduly harsh punishment for terrible poetry.) And Leicester, as he helps some tourists with a menu, reflects:  There are few things more suspicious to an Englishman abroad than another Englishman abroad.

Let’s cut to the chase.

figure in photoKevin Sullivan’s The Figure in the Photograph has a fast moving, victim strewn mystery which Camarón, who narrates, is attempting to solve by making a photographic record of activity in the local area at regular intervals. It’s 1898, he’s excited by this new method and speculates that one day there may be moving pictures taken by cameras on the street. He’s aided and hindered by the local police, a professor of pathology, the neighbourhood chemist, a mortician and various strongly drawn sisters, wives, daughters and maids. He’s also deeply traumatised, having recently witnessed the murder of his own father. He tries to repress his grief in keeping with male expectations of the period, and this along with his foreign usage of English result in a terse, deadpan style of speech and a narration that stresses facts over emotions – making it all the more powerful when love and redemption do begin to seem a possibility. Camarón’s walks through Glasgow streets with their contrasts of road and river, poverty and wealth, proud Victorian buildings and tenement slums made me want to visit. My grandfather trained as a chemist in Glasgow only a few years later, and the dispensaries he worked in must have resembled the one in the book. So I have a personal interest, but this story and setting should fascinate anyone (the first few chapters take place in Cuba, which provides another contrast).

Buildings feature heavily in both books – the old cathedral of Santiago, the Glasgow shipyards, in Bologna decaying palazzi and practical (rain shelter) porticos. Outside the Bologna walls 1970s housing projects are the modern European equivalent of slum tenements. Both books feature a death in the streets attributable to poor health and safety – in one a man is run over on train tracks that cross the road, in the other a cyclist is knocked off her bike while not wearing a helmet.  Both gumshoes have been recently bereaved.

quiet deathA gumshoe should be vulnerable, a bit cynical, have a quirky view of the world, an interest in human nature, and hold strong principles that almost in spite of himself wish to see justice done, however flawed the human beings it concerns. In the present day Bologna of A Quiet Death In Italy, Tom Benjamin’s hero Daniel Leicester speaks fluent Italian but can still be tripped up by dialect or colloquialisms. He works for his father-in-law Giovanni “il Comandante”, an ex police chief running a private detective agency, and the case he’s on brings him into conflict with three powerful p’s – politicians, property and police. Mix in a dose of accidental anarchist death, as per the famous play by Dario Fo, and you have a mystery more tangled than a bowl of spaghetti bolognese (that’s tagliatelle al ragu to the locals. Like Montalbano in Sicily, Daniel Leicester and associates always have time for lunch).

So – two good reads, two promising new detectives, two sequels to look forward to.

I was going to say I don’t normally read much crime other than grandes dames such as Highsmith and Paretsky but I realise since I began blogging I’ve discussed all the books below and in the early days I spoofed a two part Agatha Christie tribute after visiting her house in Devon.

Two mysteries remain, the first a red herring. What was my motive for writing this post? If you answer correctly I’ll congratulate you privately but edit out any spoilers (two rules of crime writing – keep ’em guessing and give your reader resolution. The second is why I don’t write crime.) The other thing that’s fishy is why The Magic Carpet hasn’t soared to an Amazon number 1 while on promotion the way The Infinity Pool did. Reader, you, your family, friends, colleagues and any random strangers you encounter hold the key to solving that one and you have eight days left before the price goes up again.

©Jessica Norrie 2020