The Italian dramatist Pirandello wrote a play called Six Characters in Search of an Author, which is the best title ever. I’d make the bestseller charts if all a book needed was a title. I love titles. They come to me throughout the humdrum day and I think: Yes! Great! I forget many, but some stick. My problem is I haven’t written the stuff that comes next.
Trying to get through to the hairdresser reminds me I could channel Steig Larsson with TheGirl with the Lockdown Hair. And another good phrase has rung through our house since March 2020. A glass or two of wine with olives and vegetable crisps saved the lockdown day with a semblance of structure. We knew we were drinking too much, so partner stopped referring to it specifically and substituted an invitation to The Things That Go With Wine (or on special occasions,The Things That Go With Fizz). These adapt easily. How about The Things That Go With Love or The Things That Go With Death? One Day I May Be Sorry for giving those away, but there’s no copyright on titles, so Be My Guest. Idioms make great titles.
Building without Dust came when I was mopping endless daily plaster residue from my keyboard during building work. I did once use it to head a review of Rachel Cusk’s work. Like Cusk, I love writing and reading about houses and homes, along with Kate Summerscale, Jane Christmas, Ann Patchett and hundreds of others. My eventual Building without Dust will be heavy on metaphor – tearing down the old to replace it with the new and then is the new any better? How long does the joy in it last? What’s the fallout from the process? It all sounds so grim I’d better just stick with the title.
Stealing Winston is my cosy crime idea. “Where are you moving to?” asked the removal man giving an estimate. “Near the Winston Churchill statue,” I said. He gave a great sigh of satisfaction. “AH! That’s my favourite statue in all Essex. Solid bronze, it is. Can’t think why no-one’s nicked it.” I stopped packing to scribble ideas about ne’er-do-wells saddled with storing and selling a whopper of a statue wot they’d pinched one night for a larf. Ideas ARE copyright so if I see this in the bestseller lists in years to come, watch out.
Hooray for poetic titles. A beauty came up recently in an article about either the Anglo-Saxon burial ground at Sutton Hoo or the additional bits of Stonehenge they’ve found in Wales. Among the ancient remains were Traces of Ancient Sunlight. How lovely; sorry that’s the only trace of information I’ve retained.
Drinking in the Atrium/ Gin in the Atrium? The Counter Tenor in the Umpire’s Chair? Back to the Hammerklavier? What’s the genre? asks long-suffering agent. Well, it’s a bit niche…
The Infinity Pool was set in an alternative holiday settlement, whose management sold out in the minds of its eco guests by building a snazzy alternative to swimming among the local jellyfish. It also felt vaguely philosophical, giving my title a bit of extra heft. When we translated the title to French the philosophical side perhaps took too much precedence and the German translator added an explanatory sub-title. The Magic Carpet – which won’t be translated but would be easier – featured in one of the stories my child narrator drew inspiration from. Unfortunately feedback shows people think it’s a children’s book because of the title.
In a recent thread in Book Connectors, my favourite Facebook group for bloggers, authors and readers, a writer complained her publishers always changed the titles she gives her books. If a commercial publisher took my books, they could call them what they like. They’d be entitled, for showing such faith in me. I just have to write the books first.
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.
Many people said my Christmas Children’s Book Quiz was too hard – sorry! I was just about to provide more clues, when a friend who is a bit of a Hermione emailed me with a 98% score! (If you haven’t tried the quiz yet, it’s here.)
Whether you raced home like Hermione or are sulking in a snowdrift, I hope I conjured childhood memories and showed you books you haven’t heard of. Children’s literature deserves every bit as much attention as writing for adults, so I’ve added links to explore further (or enjoy reminiscing). One thing I’ve learnt from setting this quiz is that my knowledge needs updating, something for the next lockdown perhaps.
Round 1: Did you, like me, read these as a child?
Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling. Kipling was a product of his time and class, with much of his writing jingoistic. But these animal stories remain delightful.
Peter Pan by J M Barrie. Strange notions of childcare here! But as stipulated in Barrie’s will, Peter Pan royalties go to Great Ormond Street Children’s hospital in London.
Just Williamby Richmal Crompton. She preferred her numerous novels for adults, but William – who never ages – is universally recognisable.
Thomas The Tank Engine by the Rev W Awdry. Despite brilliant illustrations the original text is somewhat dense, but the characters have adapted for each generation.
Island Of The Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell. This is a stirring story of an indigenous teenage girl’s survival after cruelty leaves her alone on a a remote island. See some of the Goodreads reviews for more in depth thoughts. I loved this as a teenager.
The Wolves Of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken. The first in a long, wonderful series. Aiken is up there with Pullman and Rowling for creating imaginary worlds and intelligent female leads.
The Mousehole Catby Antonia Barber and Nicola Bayley. I still can’t read this without welling up – try it for yourself or just admire the fabulous pictures.
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. This 1962 US classic was possibly the first published picture book to feature a black child without stereotyping. It was still popular with the children I taught up to 2016.
So Muchby Trish Cooke and Helen Oxenbury. At this family party, seen through the eyes of a toddler, you’ll have SO MUCH fun!
Round 3: Classics Old and Newish
Anne Of Green Gables by L M Montgomery. The later books disappoint (me), but Anne Shirley as introduced here is great fun, overcoming a rotten start in life to win everyone’s hearts.
What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge. The message about learning good behaviour through disability is cloying now, but this story fascinated me as a child. Again, the sequels are less successful (I think).
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Still good enough to make a great recent film. Amy was always my favourite, but you’re supposed to like Jo best. The sequels? Nah…
Noughts And Crosses by Malorie Blackman. A simple but clever premise, and an excellent recent TV series. Some reviewers miss the point!
Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone by J K Rowling. Not sure where you’ve been if you’ve missed this one. An imaginary world that’s given pleasure to millions, despite some of the author’s recently expressed opinions running into opposition. The sequels work brilliantly, if at too much length.
The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe by C S Lewis. A wonderful series for any child (or adult) who’s ever played about with a fictional universe. It’s a shame about the girls’ roles and the blond, noble Narnians against the dark skinned evil Calormenes, but the imaginary world created and the love of nature and animals remain outstanding.
Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Having loved this as a child, I was surprised how wordy I found it when reading it to my own children. But a roll call of illustrious illustrators have had enormous fun with the invention and characters over the years.
Winnie The Pooh by A A Milne. Now the subject of many Facebook memes, Pooh remains as lovable and silly as ever.
Northern Lights (published in the US as The Golden Compass) by Philip Pullman. My use of the UK title of the first in this fantastic series may have thrown some of you. But hey – it’s meant to be a mystery. The recent BBC adaptation does it far more justice than the film.
Mary Poppins by P L Travers. Quite dry to read, compared to the film, but worth persevering.
Round 4: These characters are (part of) the family – but in which book(s)?
Mary, Laura, Carrie and Grace Ingalls are the daughters in the Little House… series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Controversial now for the way some (not all) characters view American Indians, but beautifully written and fascinating social history as long as it’s clear it’s from the point of view of white “pioneers”.
Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis are The Railway Children (E. Nesbit) For an Edwardian woman, Nesbit had an extraordinary life.
Pod, Homily and Arriety are The Borrowers (Mary Norton). See above.
William, Charles, Percy, Fred, George, Ronald and Ginevra are the Weasley children’s full names (Harry Potter). See above.
Kurt, Marcie and Minal Cricket are the siblings of Clarice Bean, in the series by Lauren Child. A popular contemporary series.
Pongo and Missus are the parent dogs in The 101 Dalmations(Dodie Smith). This link is to the edition I had as a child, as I prefer the cover to one with film stills.
Sally and I (her narrator brother) are visited by The Cat in the Hat(Dr Seuss). When he comes back things get even crazier!
Lily Rose, Kate, Jim, John, Jo, Peggy and baby William were The Family From One End Street by Eve Garnett. The language may seem patronising, but when published in the 1930s it was ground-breaking as the first British children’s series to feature a poor working class family in a realistic way.
Naledi, Tiro and Dineo were siblings in Journey to Jo’burg by Beverley Naidoo. It’s an easy to read story of children living in apartheid era South Africa. For my mixed ability classes of 12 year olds it packed a powerful emotional and educational punch.
Ahmet is the schoolboy refugee separated from his family in Onjali Rauf’s prizewinning 2018 debut,The Boy at the Back of the Class, illustrated by Pippa Curnick. There’s also a US book with the same title by Tahlie Purvis, which I hadn’t heard of when I set this quiz. Take a point (or two) if you’ve answered with that one (or both)!
Round 5: Animals
Paddingtonby Michael Bond. Pooh may like his honey, but for Paddington only marmalade will do.
Wilbur is described as SOME PIG in letters spun into Charlotte’s Webby E B White.
InThe Story ofFerdinandby Munro Leaf, Ferdinand is a bull who would rather smell the flowers than fight in the bullring.
Mog is Meg the witch’s cat in Helen Nicoll and Jan Pienkowski’s Meg and Mog picture books. Mog is also the Thomas family’s cat in Judith Kerr’s Mog the Forgetful Cat series. There may be more!
One owl service is a set of dinner plates featuring owls with magical properties in Alan Garner’s The Owl Service.
The second is the postal service provided by owls in the wizarding world of Harry Potter. See above.
The two benevolently despotic elephants I thought of were Babarby Jean de Brunhoff, and Uncle, by J P Martin. Hermione also suggests Colonel Hathi from The Jungle Book.
InThe Magician’s Nephew by C S Lewis, Diggory’s Uncle Andrew was planted (and watered) by an elephant who mistook him for a tree. Google “images from The Magician’s Nephew” to see this incident as depicted by the wonderful Pauline Baynes. (Must blog about children’s illustrators some time.)
The Elephant’s Child (Rudyard Kipling) was spanked by his aunts and uncles for his insatiable curiosity. See Just So Stories, above.
Round 6: Identify the author and/or the book(s) they are talking about.
“It is the book I’m proudest of because it had something to do with the death of the Dick and Jane primers.” Theodore Geisel (Dr Seuss) said this of The Cat in the Hat (see above). The UK Dick and Jane were Janet and John. Janet helped Mummy in the kitchen. John helped Dad wash the car. They were boring.
“… my father had got to where he was by climbing upon my infant shoulders.” Christopher Robin Milne, in his autobiography The Enchanted Places, showed resentment of the Winnie the Pooh books by A A Milne.
Richmal Crompton complained here that William Brown “takes possession of every story I try to write, even though they are not about him.”
“I knew it would make people feel uncomfortable.” Malorie Blackman writing here about Noughts and Crosses.
“If you read my novels, you know, they’re not black novels – they’ve just got characters in them…” Benjamin Zephaniah quoted in The Guardian 14/10/14
Round 7:Snippets of random information
Tolkien and C S Lewis drank together in The Unicorn pub, Great Malvern, Worcestershire, whose gas lamps feature in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe (see above).
Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York and once married to Prince Andrew signed a seven book “nurturing” children’s book deal in Australia and New Zealand in early 2020. I think authors should get contracts on merit, not because they are linked to the UK royal family. So I am not giving a link to her books. 10,000 bonus points if you agree.
The UK children’s author and illustrator who said “I get on with (children) perfectly well but spend time with them? No, no, no…” was Quentin Blake.
Round 8: And lastly, in honour of a Europe I’m so sorry and angry to leave, have a go at these questions:
Strewwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffmann. This link is to the German edition because I loved the picture which was on my English copy as a child. Horrifying stories of awful punishments for children who misbehave.
The Diary of Anne Frankby Anne Frank (Holland). Apologies if I muddled you – I always thought this had the title I’ve given but now see recent translations call it The Diary of a Young Girl.
This Christmas will be quieter than usual so here’s a quiz to print off and mull over. See how much you can do without Google! Pleasedo post comments and scores, but not answers – they’ll be on the blog after Christmas. You may have to think back to your childhood, maybe even your parents’ and grandparents’ childhoods as I’ve realised many of my choices are old fashioned. If any 21st century children and grandchildren would like to contribute up to date and more diverse examples of well known books for a future quiz that would be great and you can email them to me via the blog.
There are a whopping 75 questions (I worked HARD on this, or you could just call it self-indulgence). Score 1 point for every correct fact you get– eg a point for authors and for picture books illustrators’ names. A point for the title or series, extra for the countries the books come from in Round 8 and any other answer to a specific question. I make the maximum score 150 but it could be more. Let me know what you get – and note, some books and authors may appear in more than one question.
Here’s an example, for two marks: TMG by PP would be Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce.
Round 1: Did you, like me, read these as a child?
TJSS by RK
TCOGK by LMB
PP by JMB
JW by RC
TTTE by RWA
IOTBD by SOD
TWOWC by JA
TLWH by EG
BS by NS
TB by MN
Round 2: A Picture Tells a Thousand Words
LATD by SH
TVHC by EC
PAL by JM
M by LB
F by J & AA
TS by RB
HS by EB
TMC by AB and NB
TSD by EJK
SM by TC
Round 3: Classics Old and Newish
AOGG by LMM
WKD by SC
LW by LMA
NAC by MB
HPATPS by JKR
TLTWATW by CSL
AAIW by LC
WTP by AAM
NL aka TGC by PP
MP by PLT
Round 4: These characters are (part of) the family – but what is the book or series?
Mary, Laura, Carrie and Grace
Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis
Pod, Homily and Arriety
William, Charles, Percy, Fred, George, Ronald and Ginevra
Kurt, Marcie and Minal Cricket
Pongo and Missus
Sally and I
Lily Rose, Kate, Jim, John, Jo, Peggy and baby William
Naledi, Tiro and Dineo
Ahmet – and why is he on his own?
Round 5: Animals
Who liked marmalade?
Who WAS marmalade?
Who was SOME PIG?
Which animal hero of a 1936 children’s book banned by General Franco and burnt by Hitler was, according to Life magazine, accused of being “everything from a fascist to a pacifist to a burlesque sit-down striker”?
Who had a cat called Mog? (At least two possible answers.)
Describe an owl service…
Two benevolent despots in children’s literature happen to be elephants. Can you name them?
In which book did someone’s uncle get planted by another elephant who thought he must be a tree?
And whose aunts and uncles spanked him for his insatiable curiosity?
Who is made of patchwork?
.…and who of velveteen?
Where in the world does a spider play tricks and tell tales, and what is his name?
Which canine babysitter lost sight of her three charges?
Who got fed up with spring cleaning?
Round 6: Identify the author and/or the book(s) they are talking about.
“It is the book I’m proudest of because it had something to do with the death of the Dick and Jane primers”
“It was a brilliant title but the publishers didn’t like at first. Even reviewers at the time said things like: “in spite of the strange title, it’s a very good book”
“It seemed to me almost that my father had got to where he was by climbing upon my infant shoulders.”
“He takes possession of every story I try to write, even though they are not about him.”
“I knew it would make people feel uncomfortable.”
“If you read my novels, you know, they’re not black novels – they’ve just got characters in them; it’s about who they are, you know, the story and it represents the communities that I’ve lived in, which are very mixed communities. I don’t sit down and go “right, I’ve got to write black literature for black people” or anything like that. I just write stories.”
Round 7: Snippets of random information
Which two UK authors used to enjoy a drink together in this pub, in a town whose gas lamps inspired a famous scene in a book by one of them?
Which humorous US cartoonist and writer for adults and children was part blind after being shot in the eye by his brother in a childhood game of William Tell?
Which Brit signed a seven book children’s “nurturing” book deal in Australia and New Zealand in early 2020? (10,000 bonus points if you can guess my thoughts about this.)
Which UK children’s author and illustrator said about children: “I get on with them perfectly well but spend time with them? No, no, no. There’s no need, you see. I just make it all up.”
Round 8: Lastly, in honour of a Europe I’m sorry and angry to be forced to leave:
(Picture book) WTWTA by MS
(Picture book) M by LB (oh! I already had this in Round 2. 2 free points then.)
(Picture book) M by DB
(Poems) S by HH
(Autobiography) TDOAF by AF
(Classic) F by A
(20th century Classic) PL by AL
Where might you find Pom, Flora, Alexander and their cousin Arthur?
Why might reading fairy tales not be an entirely happy experience?
How have cartoonists recently compared Boris Johnson to an Italian classic character?
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.
Please note: This blogpost interview with my translator is in French and English so you don’t have to read more than half of it! If you blog about books in the francophone world please see the full French text below and feel free to republish it (by all means share too if you blog in English). Also please do contact me for a free Mobi file if you would be interested in reviewing Infinitude.
Je publie cet entretien avec ma traductrice en français et en anglais, donc il ne faut lire que la moitié ! Le texte français est proposé à la suite de l’anglais et j’invite les blogueurs du monde francophone à le diffuser sans modération ! De plus, si vous êtes blogeur/se et que vous aimeriez écrire en donnant votre avis sur Infinitude, je vous prie de me contacter pour obtenir une version électronique gratuite de mon roman.
As this is my English language blog, I’m providing the English version first.
Faced with the horrors of Brexit, it’s a pleasure to have collaborated on Infinitude, the just published French translation of my first novel. As soon as I published The Infinity Pool in 2015, a translation was suggested. The German version appeared in 2018, and the French edition two months ago. You’ll find the paperback and the Kindle edition by searching any Amazon worldwide, or at: http://getbook.at/Infinitude
I owe huge thanks to Isabelle Rouault-Röhlich, who’s patiently translated my first novel. She deserves great success with this project. This interview introduces her and explains the process of translating someone else’s book.
Hi Isabelle ! Where do you live and work ?Which languages do you use in daily life?
Bonjour Jessica ! I live in Valencia, Spain. I work here, and also in Paris or London when I’m lucky enough to be asked by clients. My mother tongue is French, but I spoke English from when I was about six years old, so we speak English at home too. Of course in Valencia I also speak Spanish (Castilian). My husband works a lot with German, so our house sometimes sounds like a real Tower of Babel!
How did you come across this translation project?
The project for this book was posted by a colleague on a translators’ forum. I already had wide experience of editorial translation and of translating non fiction. But up until then, I hadn’t had the opportunity to translate a novel, so I didn’t hesitate a second before buying the book and diving straight in. The story hooked me straight away, that’s what decided me!
Tell us about the process of translating a whole book. How do you start? What are the pleasures – and the pitfalls?
There’s no shortage of pitfalls. But I was prepared for them. The main difficulty is thinking you can translate something every day. It isn’t always possible to fit it in with the demands of other customers, and you have be be very disciplined. The other traps are more to do with language and the science of translation: you must remain aware that the translator’s role is adaptive, and not get discouraged when the French and English don’t match. For example, if you can’t find an equivalent concept or term in the other language, then you must return to the story and take a step back from interpreting the words literally. And when the English sentences seem a bit long and putting them into good French seems impossible, you mustn’t give up but keep formulating and reformulating…
Can you give us an elevator pitch for Infinitude/The Infinity Pool?
Serendipity, a holiday settlement on a Mediterranean shore, promises personal growth for body and soul. But this year, Adrian, the charismatic “guru” director, hasn’t turned up. His loyal disciples must fight their personal and 21st century battles alone. Infinitude is a novel about the importance of others.
Who do you think would particularly like this book? Is there a special place, or a particular time of life when it would resonate most?
I think it’s a novel for people aged 25-45. But there are no real age limits!
I know you’ve already translated one book from English to French. Can you describe it please (and provide link)?
Yes, thank you for the plug! I’ve finished translating“Les audacieuses”, an adaptation of “Rouge” which is a novel by Richard Kirshenbaum. It was inspired by the lives of Elsa Rubinstein and Estée Lauder and the troubled relationship of the two great women who invented modern cosmetics.
The novel won’t come out until 7 January 2021, delayed by the pandemic. I’ve also another project with a publisher who wants to introduce French readers to an American author who disappeared too young. It’s still under wraps…
Infinitude is partly about the effects of tourism on a traditional community. I think you too are campaigning against environmental damage?
Yes indeed. I’m very active in the struggle against plastic pollution and single use plastics, taking part in beach clean-ups. I’ve produced multilingual publicity for town halls and institutions to educate their citizens, and also poster resources for public use everywhere. I’m seeking financial backing for this campaign, and you can find details on my website: www.wordistas.net
What sort of translation do you do to bring home the bacon? How can we ask you to quote for a project?
I do mostly “adaptive translation”. I also specialise in “trans-creation”, which is creative marketing and publicity translation. And I have a special interest in environmental translation work. Please see my website (above) for more details.
Thank you so much, Isabelle, and especially for your hard work over the past few years. Let’s hope Infinitude is an infinite success for both of us!
Thank you too, Jessica, very much. Our mutual trust has helped us get this project finished. Now like you I wish Infinitude all possible good fortune and infinite success!
English readers stop here unless you wish to practice your French (but feel free to comment below).
A vous, lecteurs francophones!
En total contraste avec les horreurs du Brexit, cette belle collaboration avec le traducteur de mon premier roman a été pour moi un grand plaisir. Au moment de publier The Infinity Pool en 2015, l’idée de proposer une traduction a été lancée. La version allemande a été publiée en 2018, et la version française – Infinitude – vient de sortir !
Vous pouvez consulter et acheter le livre en version papier ou pour Kindle chez Amazon dans le pays de votre choix, ou ici : http://getbook.at/Infinitude.
Je souhaite tout particulièrement remercier Isabelle Rouault-Röhlich, qui a patiemment traduit ce premier roman, et je lui souhaite ainsi qu’à ce projet la plus belle des réussites.
À suivre, cet entretien présente la traductrice et explique un peu le processus consistant à traduire un livre rédigé par quelqu’un autre.
Bonjour Isabelle ! Où habites-tu et où travailles-tu ? Quelles sont les langues que tu parles au quotidien ?
Bonjour Jessica ! Je vis à Valence, ou Valencia, en Espagne. Je travaille ici, mais aussi à Paris ou à Londres si j’ai la chance d’être appelée pour un projet par un client ! Ma langue maternelle est le français, mais j’ai commencé à parler anglais très tôt, vers l’âge de 6 ans, alors nous parlons aussi anglais à la maison. Et à Valence, je parle espagnol (castellan), bien sûr. Mon mari travaille lui beaucoup avec l’allemand, ce qui fait de notre maison une vraie tour de Babel parfois !
Comment as-tu entendu parler de ce projet de traduction ?
Ce livre m’a été proposé par une de mes collègues grâce à un forum de traducteurs. J’avais déjà une grande expérience de la traduction éditoriale et de la traduction d’ouvrages de non-fiction. Mais jusque-là, je n’avais pas eu l’opportunité de traduire des romans, c’est pourquoi je n’ai pas hésité une seconde et ai acheté le livre pour m’y plonger immédiatement. J’ai tout de suite accroché à l’histoire, c’est ce qui m’a décidée !
Raconte-nous un peu le processus de traduction d’un livre entier. Comment l’aborde-t-on ? Quels sont les plaisirs – et les pièges ?
Les pièges ne manquent pas. Mais je m’y attendais ! La difficulté principale, c’est de penser qu’on peut traduire un peu chaque jour. Ce n’est pas toujours possible quand on a d’autres clients, et il faut une grande discipline. Enfin, les autres pièges relèvent plutôt de la langue et de la traductologie : il faut être conscient du véritable rôle d’adaptation du traducteur et ne pas se décourager quand l’anglais et le français ne sont pas d’accord, par exemple si on n’arrive pas à trouver un concept équivalent ou un terme dans l’autre langue, auquel cas il faut se plonger dans l’histoire et prendre du recul par rapport aux mots en tant que tels. Et si les phrases anglaises sont un peu longues et que l’exercice en français semble impossible, il ne faut pas se décourager, formuler et… reformuler.
Est-ce que tu peux nous présenter Infinitude en 25 mots ? Un résumé en quelques secondes ?
Au bord de la Méditerranée, un lieu de vacances propose à un public un peu « bobo » de se ressourcer, corps et âme. Mais cette année, Adrian, le charismatique « gourou » de Serendipity, n’est pas arrivé. Ses fidèles « suiveurs » vont se retrouver face à leurs contradictions et à celles du XXIe siècle. Infinitude est aussi un roman sur l’importance de l’autre.
A ton avis, quels lecteurs aimeront ce livre ? Est-ce qu’il y un endroit parfait pour le lire, ou un moment de la vie qui correspond particulièrement pour le lire ?
Je pense que ce roman s’adresse aux 25-45 ans. Mais il n’y a jamais de limites d’âge !
Je crois que tu as déjà traduit un autre roman anglais en français…
Oui, merci de le mentionner ! J’ai terminé la traduction de “Les audacieuses”, une adaptation à partir de “Rouge” un roman de Richard Kirshenbaum inspiré de la vie d’Elsa Rubinstein et d’Estée Lauder et des relations houleuses entre les deux grandes dames qui ont inventé la cosmétique moderne.Visiter: https://michel-lafon.ca/livres/les-audacieuses/
Ce roman ne sortira que le 7 janvier 2021 à cause de la pandémie. Enfin, j’ai un autre projet en cours avec un éditeur qui veut proposer au public français de relire une auteure américaine qui a disparu trop tôt. C’est encore confidentiel…
Infinitude fait allusion aux effets du tourisme dans une communauté traditionnelle. Je crois que toi aussi tu luttes contre les dommages à l’environnement ?
Exactement. Je suis très active dans la lutte contre la pollution par le plastique et les plastiques à usage unique et je participe à des nettoyages de plages. Je réalise des écrits multilingues de sensibilisation citoyenne pour les mairies et les institutionnels, mais aussi pour diffuser auprès de tous les publics, et je suis à la recherche de financements. Ce que je propose est présenté sur mon site web www.wordistas.net
Et quel genre de traduction fais-tu pour gagner ton pain quotidien ? Où peut-on te joindre pour en savoir plus sur ce que tu proposes ?
Je fais le maximum de traduction-adaptation. Je suis aussi spécialiste de la « transcréation », c’est-à-dire la traduction créative pour la publicité et le marketing. Enfin, la traduction environnementale m’intéresse beaucoup.Mon site web est www.wordistas.net.
Merci beaucoup Isabelle, et merci encore pour ton grand travail de ces dernières années. Espérons une réussite infinie pour « Infinitude » !
Merci beaucoup à toi, Jessica. La confiance nous a permis de mener à bien ce projet. J’espère comme toi qu’il aura un succès infini. Alors bon vent à ce livre !
People in England do grumble; it’s a national hobby. For example, I wear my Remoaner badge with pride. One grumble leads to another, as here when I meant to write about not writing and found myself on Brexit by my second line.
This blog post grumble is cheaper than a therapist and may find friends among the online rumble of grumbles about books not selling, authors uninspired, authors unappreciated. One author started a recent Book Connectors thread with: “I’m sure I’m not alone, but boy, I feel alone right now”. Respondents described “terrible inertia”, “terribly demoralising times”, “soul-destroying hard slog”, “disappointing book sales and no vigour to promote”. Publishing a book in a saturated market is like “screaming into a din.” Twitter too is full of moans, not only from authors. It’s a great place to bellyache, beef, bitch, bleat, carp, cavil, chunter, complain, create, find fault, gripe, grizzle, groan, grouch, kvetch, mither, pick holes, protest, sound off, whine, whinge. (That’s my riposte to writing teachers dictating you must only use the verb “said”.)
Much author grousing is justified. The disrespect for the time and effort taken to produce a book, the hoops to jump through to get it published, friends and families all wanting free copies or buying one between twelve, with their first question “What are you going to write next?” Then there’s the stranglehold of genre; the expensive, sometimes formulaic creative writing industry; piddling advances and low royalties; piracy; gatekeeping from trade publishers; too few stockists; Amazon dominance; the difficulty of getting noticed/reviewed; the high cost to indies of (often excellent) editing and design; the scams from fake services… The assumption that all self-published authors write crap – this blog post was delayed as I fired off a response to a smug thread on the Facebook “Extreme Pedantry” group.
I blame my own current inertia on recent rejections from trade publishers. I do understand rejections are a rite of passage, even a badge of honour, and mine are “improving”. They’re now increasingly detailed, thoughtful and almost wholly positive. Novel 3 is currently garnering rejections in this vein:
“…what an original idea. I am glad to have seen it…she does write nicely”
“I have finally had a chance to read (NOVEL 3) and admired it very much… I did enjoy its emotional range and vivid setting… Hope you find it a great home.”
“I thought it was so unusual, and for someone who doesn’t LOVE (this kind of) book I was absolutely hooked! The writing was particularly lovely in places and I enjoyed it very much as a reader.”
“I found it really original with an extremely interesting premise, and thought Jessica was really successful in accomplishing what she set out to do. The mother’s physical distance but emotional intimacy with her children… is really well realised and very evocative. I enjoyed the lyrical quality to the writing, and like I say it was very different to all the other submissions I have considered recently.”
“I think that this novel has a brilliant message…”
“…all the best with finding a publisher for Jessica – she is a very strong writer with brilliant ideas.”
And since going to press:“I was intrigued by the premise and the themes – which Jessica explores with great tenderness – and I think the writing is excellent.“
On bad days, “good” rejections feel no different to someone saying “Call this crap a book?” Of course they are, but you do find yourself wondering just how good your package has to be to jump through the acquisition committee hoops and remain true to your own voice. I take my hat off (some days with more grace than others) to those who write multi-volume crime series and romances but that’s not my skillset. I write standalone fiction. The worst any editor’s said about Novel 3 is: “it’s slightly didactic”. It’s an overtly feminist novel, for Goddesses’ sake. Do editors find fault with Margaret Atwood for being didactic? (Virago were sent Novel 3, but haven’t responded – yet.) Also – as of yesterday – “It’s too diffuse“. Fair enough.
I managed 14,000 words of Novel 4 and have sent them to my Zoom writing group for their opinions. I’m happy to wait for their response, as I haven’t opened the file since August. It seems rather pointless. Novels 1 and 2 were both well received when self-published after trade publisher rejections, but sales have dwindled. I don’t want to send Novel 3 down the same path. And if I still can’t get a publisher to risk an advance on me – any sum, however modest, would be acceptable – why bother with months of back and eye strain, revisions, self-doubt, rejection all over again?
Yet, what to do with my retired days? The choir can’t meet; the clothes shops can’t open their changing rooms; I can’t Zoom all day.
So I understand the grumbling authors online. The responses from the writing community are fantastic, ranging from virtual hugs through practical encouragement and pep talks. Spare me those last; I don’t need to hear about other people’s six figure incomes from churning out five books a year and embracing the marketing side. But the empathy and sympathy (never could understand the distinction) – are great: long may they continue. When I’ve been sufficiently hugged, I’ll be back in a position to use the practical advice. Thank you all for that.
The rumbling grumbles surely reflect creeping poor mental health among the general population, as the evenings chill and second wave Covid lies in wait. Everyone has trials – my son who’s self-isolating two weeks into a new teaching post with no tests available; the shop staff afraid to ask customers to wear masks; my daughter whose possibly fractured foot wasn’t x-rayed for months (yes, months); the elderly man in town this morning who showed me his “cancer card” and asked if the public toilets were all closed. When does a grumble become a legitimate grievance?
We authors must put our grumbles into perspective. But I’ll spare you a pep talk. Please consider yourselves hugged instead.
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.
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.
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.
I do have some news this week, but first I have a question for you:
Did you ever go to school?
As many of you know, I was a teacher for 33 years. I posted a lot about it when I started this blog, because I was still in harness. Then I retired and with gratitude in my heart for a fascinating career that at last I was leaving (when I started I only intended to stay a few years), I blogged a farewell.
Four years later, what a lot of crap we’ve seen, and even more this week. Nurses, porters, paramedics and hospital cleaners have been refused a pay rise. They’re supposed to live on clapping and rainbows, I suppose. Teachers did get one (from existing money, so something else will have to go), and immediately teachers are blamed for it. Why have they got a pay rise? They haven’t even been in school! Lazy, workshy – and so on.
Right then, today the class task is 5 minutes silent reading which you’ll find here. It’s a heartfelt plea from a practising English teacher. Authors who read this: we need English teachers. They read our books and teach the readers of tomorrow! So head over and read her POV, please, and I want to see you back in here as soon as you’ve finished.
Now spend 5 minutes writing your answer to Susan English. How are you going to help put things right for this teacher and her colleagues? (You at the back – if we don’t get this done today we’ll all be staying in until we do.)
This possible model answer is more or less what I commented on her blog:
I do so sympathise. I taught all age groups and some teacher training/school improvement. In my NQT year (then called “probation”) I went to a family party at my new partner’s home in a county where they love to tell you they’re “proud to call a spade a spade”.
“What do you do?” asked an aunt/cousin/bad-fairy-at-the-wedding. “I’m a teacher,” I said. “Teachers? I wouldn’t give you the time of day for ’em!” she retorted. And so it went on… party after party, all my teaching life:
“What do you do?” / “I’m a teacher…” “Teachers? Ever heard that saying: ‘those who can, do; those who can’t, teach’. Ha ha ha! Oh I remember Mr X/ Ms Y. We used to love winding him up! And we made her cry! Yes, she used to run out the room weeping! Those were the days!”
These otherwise pleasant people somehow became bigoted monsters the moment you said you were a teacher. I can only think each of them had been damaged at an early age by one of the very few colleagues who doesn’t have pupils’ welfare etched deeply in their hearts.
Nowadays I go to parties (currently only on Zoom, of course) and when people say “What do you do?” I say, “I’m a writer!” “WOW!” they answer. “That’s so impressive! I could never do THAT! You must be so brainy, have such focus, work so hard, have such imagination and empathy…” “Yup,” I say. “I developed all those when I was teaching, and I did my best to develop them in your children too.” “You were a teacher? Oh we had this teacher and we used to make her cry…” etc.
When you leave, write a novel about it. Or start one now. Writing The Magic Carpet was as good as therapy and it really boosted my morale. Yes, I HAD done a good job, yes I HAD worked hard, and I know you do too. Even if no-one else does, I’m saying, “You’re a teacher? Well DONE!”
(A* for the blog post too.)
What other news do I have? It’s BIG news, it deserves a post to itself and next time I’ll have one. The French version of The Infinity Pool was published this week. It’s called Infinitude. Are you French? Do you know French people? (Could be because a French teacher started you off…) Soon I’ll be interviewing Isabelle the hard working translator but for now here’s the book cover, the link’s above, and here’s some bon vin français to drink a toast. Now please find someone to buy it, and/or Der Infinity-Pool which is the German version because guess what? Teachers DO mostly earn more than authors or translators. Except in respect.
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.
Interesting to see how many characters
feature in these covers
despite the clear front runner.
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 life 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.)
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?
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.
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 ThePuppet 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).
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.