Striking the right note…

I’ve heard there’s this nasty bug going around… No, that’s too trivialising. EVERYONE’S GOING TO DIE! Alarmist, untrue. All things must pass: cliched but almost certainly correct. How are you all, blog followers (unless you’ve dropped out for which I wouldn’t blame you)? I haven’t posted for months, partly due to a second glaucoma operation (fitted in just in time) and partly now due to, well, this bug that’s going around. It’s high time I checked you’re all ok out there, and shared some positives from how I’m passing the locked down time.

This is normally a books and writing blog. books for blog 2Reading does help, it’s true. I’ve finished the latest Philip Pullman – very entertaining, very dark, perhaps a few too many meetings of the Magisterium to hold my interest and I’m not sure he’s quite as secure writing the young woman Lyra as he was writing the child – but as always brilliantly inventive, perceptive, unpatronising, chilling. I needed a complete change after that, so am in the middle of Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women. Just as chilling, in its way. Women are 47% more likely to die in car accidents, because safety trials use male dummies as default. Female pianists are 87% more likely to suffer from RSI due to the size of a standard keyboard. A male investor, faced with a business plan for an  innovative breast pump that outclassed the commonly used standard US models, recoiled in disgust. It’s wittily written, informative, and just as you’re despairing, it has messages of hope. Books for blog 2.4 (2)Then when I’m ready to return to fiction, my pile is not for the faint-hearted. Just as well we’re in lockdown.

I finished the 3rd edit of Novel 3 and sent it back to Agent X. Agent X expressed irritation the other day because authors were clamouring along the lines of “you must have loads of time for reading now”. So I won’t nag Agent X, but y’know, if I don’t have a publishing deal by midsummer, I’ll…I’ll…well, I’m not sure what I’ll do.

Still with an eye to words and writing, I signed up for the Curtis Brown Creative Weekly Writing Workout, if only because I have absolutely no idea how to follow Novel 3 and some of their ideas may help. I’m playing online Scrabble with old friends and relations – this site is marvellous because you can swap tiles, use outlandish dictionaries no one else has ever heard of, search for bingos and definitions…It’s more about placement and less about your own skill than the traditional board game, and there are no adverts to distract you, with unlimited games, languages and combinations all for $15 a year.

walk for blog (2)Every day we go for a walk. Sometimes in countryside within walking distance, sometimes through streets. We seem to be noticing more, and valuing it. Here is a garden in the next road, complete with sculptures and cowslips. On our walks I surreptitiously break off cuttings of overhanging plants, as I was all set to order for empty spaces in our garden when what one choirmaster calls “The Great Adjournment” began.

The ex infant teacher in me is lapping up the online ideas posted to help (or pressurise) parents trying to homeschool their children. As soon as we finish the next plastic milk carton, I’m going to make an Elmer. I don’t happen to have a stock of coloured tissue paper, but there’s wrapping paper, old magazines to cut up, my partner’s clothes…I may unearth my neglected mosaics kit, perhaps when I’ve exhausted the puzzle I bought in Kyoto art gallery (those were the days). Simple pleasures: a jigsaw, a good cup of coffee, and Jenni Murray’s rich, reassuring voice on BBC Woman’s Hour.

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Credit for the Elmer design goes to Amy Trow from https://www.facebook.com/groups/houseboundwithkids/

The days start with my home made version of yoga and stretches and then I practise my piano, fortuitously delivered just before lockdown. That means it hasn’t had its inaugural tune, but the friend with whom I swap 5 minute recordings of what we’ve managed today hasn’t complained so far. I’m not posting a recording here as I do have some pride, but the regular, extra time will surely result in a better technique and wider repertoire by the time lockdown ends – won’t it?

I’m very sad there’ll be no Wimbledon and no Dartington this year. I’m apprehensive about catching the virus. I’m concerned for people who were vulnerable before any of this even started – refugees, domestic violence victims, the mentally ill and the disabled. I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t like to see my children, friends and Hackney Singers in real life rather than on Zoom, but otherwise the piano (2)simple life is rather appealing to me. I’m hoping we’ll all reset our values and habits as a result of this episode. Perhaps we’ll value home cooking more, and fashion that lasts, the company of our partners and our own company. Perhaps wildlife will thrive with less polluting traffic, and have you seen how clear the sky is without aircraft? Maybe our government will at last resource our NHS as it deserves and recognise how much low paid and low prestige workers contribute to society. In the West, at least, some of us had become decadent and spoilt. Perhaps as a species we’ll learn some timely lessons.

I don’t underestimate the difficulties, and I do sincerely hope you all come through unscathed. Take care, wash your hands, stay at home, count your blessings, and if you are a key worker of any kind, I particularly thank you and wish you well.

jigsaw (2)

©Jessica Norrie 2020

 

Towards the end of the year…

A rounding up, summing up, divvying up write up of the year beckons. I haven’t blogged blogger-recognition-2019as often this year for health and other reasons but was touched despite lagging behind to receive a Blogger Recognition Award today. Actually it’s my second such award… not bad for someone who is poor at networking and not really a team player. More of that below.

Things have certainly happened. The Magic Carpet was published in July and has some wonderful reviews from a pretty exclusive readership. Last night I was invited to answer questions about it by a book club. As I travelled there, I thought I should have prepared a flipchart…a powerpoint…handouts. My mind became strangely blank as to what was in the book, why and how I’d written it, whether I even had any right to claim it as mine. I’ve never been in a book club, my excuse being that I studied literature at university so I’ve been there and done that (arrogant and hardly recent). I also prefer to read what I choose when I want, and as said I’m Christmas 4not a team player. But now that I know a bookclub can involve Crémant de Bourgogne, a “snack” supper of three courses, hand-made home-made chocolates and a kind of gently probing supportive questioning that didn’t last more than twenty minutes, maybe I’ll change my mind. I may have been the guest author but I did feel the junior partner – these women were all much more careful readers (and cooks) than I am!

In November I finished the 3rd edit of Novel Three and sent it to Agent X who has it on his pile for comments. I already have acknowledgments to make, to several friends for discussions and particularly to my writing group, Z, M and C. These mysterious ladies are writing novels set variously in Afghanistan, London, Paris and South America, and we’ve had a good year exploring each others’ ideas in a surprisingly cheap central London cocktail bar M knew. In future it will be known as the Algonquin of the 21st century. London literary walks will skip nearby Bloomsbury and head straight for the blue plaque we fully intend to have there. Until then we’re keeping it secret. Who will get published first? Watch this space.

In August I had my eye operation which went well and I’ll have the other eye done in February. I’ve been pleased that changed eyesight has not meant too much change to my writing routines. I must spend less time on screens and online but that’s a good thing anyway. For the time being all I need do is enlarge the page to type and read. I have no ideas yet for Novel Four, and I hope I think of something because I enjoy writing  so much.  But this year must be the year of a traditional publisher – I’m uncomfortable asking people to buy from Amazon and indeed some of them won’t. Hopefully I’ve improved my craft enough for poor Agent X to get lucky third time round.

Now to that Blogger Recognition Award. I was very touched to be nominated by Sally Cronin at Smorgasbord and her gesture in turn means I can thank some of the bloggers who’ve supported me and who I’ve enjoyed reading this year. We move in overlapping circles so some names have I’m sure received several awards already. No harm piling the awards up though, and congratulations if you’re new to all this!

As Sally says, participation is optional. Many of you will be too busy to act on this at all,or you may want to put it aside for now and come back to it in the spring. That’s entirely up to you. I tried making a badge but I’m crap so please use Sally’s or one of these.

There are a few guidelines attached to the award if you do participate.

My thanks of course to Sally at Smorgasbord for nominating me.

Rules:

1. Thank the blogger(s) who nominated you and provide a link to their blog.
2. Write a post to show your award.
3. Give a brief story of how your blog started.
4. Give two pieces of advice to new bloggers.
5. Select up to fifteen bloggers you want to give this award to.
6. Comment (or pingback) on each blog to let them know that you’ve nominated them and provide a link to the post you’ve created.

How My Blog Started:

In 2015 I was advised to blog after I published The Infinity Pool. It was supposed to get me more sales. Slowly, it did, and I found I enjoyed blogging more than I’d expected. I’ve made some good friends in the blogosphere, and am always humbled and touched by the welcome I get when I return to the scene after a few weeks or months away..

Two Pieces of Advice to New (or any) Bloggers:

  1. This plea comes from a reader with poor vision but would help everyone. Please make sure your font is large enough and the colour scheme helps rather than hinders the readability. You should break up long paragraphs, and the whole site should be easy to navigate.
  2. You’ll write a good post if you’re in the mood for blogging. It shouldn’t become a chore. If you can’t be bloggered, don’t.

Select up to 15 Bloggers:  Some who are incredibly supportive I really should include, but when I looked I’d included them last time so I hope they’ll excuse me. You know who you are (D G Kaye, for instance!)

Colleen Chesebro – Word Craft – Prose and Poetry Colleen is hugely encouraging to any creative writers and poets out there. She and all the following are team players – I may not be one but I can certainly appreciate them.

Robbie Cheadle: Roberta Writes Robbie’s frequent comments always encourage me to think at least someone’s read my posts carefully!

Mary Smith: Mary Smith’s Place I couldn’t believe I hadn’t nominated Mary last time around. Not many people have the qualifications, experience and writing ability to guide you from Afghanistan to Dumfries and Galloway!

Liz Gauffreau: Elizabeth Gauffreau is a writer from Adelaide, generous with her thoughtful, appreciative comments.

Shelley Wilson at I write. I read. I review. Shelley is a writing mentor, author, networker and I can only assume a bundle of energy as she’s very productive!

Lel Budge at The Bookwormery  kicked off my recent blog tour with gentle efficiency and blogs about health as well as books.

Marcia Meara at The Write Stuff. Her sub heading is “Writers helping Writers” and she does exactly what it says on the tin.

Mairead at Swirl and Thread is an Irish blogger and NetGalley reviewer but I’ve mainly come across her on Facebook. I’m always struck by her common sense, gentle enthusiasm and discerning taste.

Rekha at The Book Decoder is a breath of fresh air! If I had to explain the meaning of the word enthusiasm to a Martian, I’d guide them to Rekha’s site.

Anonymous (the cat herder?) at Herding Cats hides her light under a bushel but quietly gets on with reviewing, appreciating, communicating her love of books.Cheistmas 3

Katy Johnson is an author and generous interviewer and sharer at Katy’s Writing Coffee Shop. She hasn’t posted in the last couple of months, so must be busy with her many many projects.

Julie at A Little Book Problem gave The Magic Carpet the best review I’ve ever had so I’m encouraging people to throw awards at her until she has a little award problem too.

Camilla Downs is another generous team player from the US. At Meet the Authors she’s always happy to help other authors and produces interesting work herself.

Last but definitely not least, Kriti Khare at Armed with a Book  networks, shares, disseminates, teaches. She’s always worth a visit.

And a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all!

© Jessica Norrie 2019

Fortune favours the brave

I chose this title for today’s blog post for two reasons:

1) This is a new venture: my first author interview on the blog. When given the opportunity I was keen to write about Jennie Ensor and her book because I so admire what she’s done. If this goes down well I may do more interviews in future.

2) More importantly, Jennie’s novel is about childhood sexual abuse. It’s not autobiography and shouldn’t be read as such, but during the publishing journey she has opened up about her own childhood experiences. The reception and sales of the book look pretty good to me so far and she has much to be proud of. Hence the title. Now on with the show.

40951635The Girl in his Eyes (Bloodhound Books, Sept 18) is the story of Laura, a young woman who can’t find her niche in life. She drifts through jobs ranging from unfulfilling to dodgy; she can’t give of her best in either, and she can’t make friends. “As if she had no free will whatsoever.” She was sexually abused by her father Paul, who “always had to be in control”. We soon see he was in control of Laura’s mother too, rendering parenting from both sides damaged. Without spoilers, the plot involves whether Laura can recover and also whether she can stop it happening to others. Ensor’s background is journalism. She sets out the context, the facts, the questions arising and the denouement efficiently, readably and well. I’d have liked a more original style in places, but style is hardly the most important thing about this novel, and it’s a page turner.

It’s hard to find Laura’s personality for the first two thirds of the book, for Laura as well as the reader. That’s the point – what happened to her in childhood has effaced her as a human being. “…an invisible cloak separated her from the world, containing within it all the bad things …she couldn’t let anyone see.” Her story is told in third person, with her mother’s and, bravely, her father’s in alternating chapters. Though I cringed as I read, I think Paul’s are the most successful chapters. Ensor captures (what I imagine to be) the self justification and twistedness of an abuser so well. Paul is only too real, nasty man, and so is mother Suzanne. But do read it and find out for yourself.

Q. I liked the discreet, reticent way you wrote the abuse scenes, and also those when Paul is attracted to another 12-year-old girl, Emma. The worst scenario would be accidentally writing something that some readers found seductive, yet to avoid such scenes altogether would be to create elephants in the room. Did it take you a long time to find the right balance?

A. Most readers seem to agree that the grooming/abuse scenes in the novel are not at all gratuitous or over the top, though for many they were unsettling. I did my best to write JEnsor blog postthem so as to minimise the possibility of some readers getting turned on by what Paul was doing – or wanting to do – to Emma, but I also wanted to indicate clearly to the reader what actually was going on. When I first wrote those scenes I didn’t think about balance, I just wrote what came to me. Later on, I cut a few descriptions of Emma from Paul’s point of view, e.g. how Emma smelled to him, and certain things which seemed too intimate or likely to offend/repel. Details can be powerful but beyond a certain point, I think it is definitely best to leave things to the reader’s imagination.

Also, there is the issue of point of view. The novel is all written in the close third person. Given that I wrote the grooming/abuse scenes from Paul’s POV, I knew it would be possible at times for readers to interpret that Emma is being ‘seductive’ with Paul rather than purely a victim, because in his twisted mind that’s how he perceives her. I wanted to get inside his head but felt uneasy about readers being drawn into too high a degree of empathy for his loathsome behaviour. However, I intentionally let some of Emma’s actions remain open to interpretation, to show how the carrot of being discovered as a model affects her better judgement. All in all, this needed a lot of pondering to get right.

Q. Laura has one friend, Rachel. “…sometimes she had the disconcerting feeling that Rachel looked on her as an object of curiosity, much as a biologist might examine the contents of a petri dish”. Does Rachel do all that you’d want a friend to do in Laura’s situation? Do you think Laura looks on herself that way, too?

A. Rachel is not the ideal friend, for sure. She is interested in Laura and has some insight into what she is going through, but is unable or unwilling to go the extra mile to support Laura. When I wrote the scenes with Rachel, I didn’t feel too much sympathy for her. But by the time I came to redraft the novel a few years later, I had more understanding of how difficult it can be to support a friend who is behaving self destructively. As for Laura’s view of herself – I wanted her to be, for much of the novel at least, unaware of how her behaviour is driven by her past abuse, so that she is, to an extent, surprised by how she herself acts.

Q. One aspect I liked was how you explore the mother’s experience, as wife, mother and friend. “Even now [says Laura], I’m going round on tippy toes to save (mother) from the harsh reality.” I got the sense you started off quite judgmental but became more sympathetic to her as the story continued – would I be right?

A. I wanted to show how Laura’s mother Suzanne develops as a character in response to her overwhelming pain of knowing what her husband has done to their daughter – which is something she has suspected deep down but not been able to face. I also wanted to show how the relationship between Laura and her mother changes as a result of this. Laura is rightly angry with her mother early on, but by the end of the novel both women have changed. I wouldn’t say I became more sympathetic to Suzanne, but I definitely hoped that readers might take a more nuanced view of her by the end of the novel.

Q. This is an affluent, suburban family – or appears to be. Appearances are very important in the book. Why did you decide on that particular social background?

A. Yes, this is an affluent family, living in a detached house in a prime part of London (Wimbledon village). I’m attracted to the idea of dark things coming from the outwardly ‘normal’ suburban family – and it is somehow less expected that a sex abuser will live in a nice house, have a fast car and a good job, which I think makes the set up more interesting.

JEnsor blog post 2From what I know about paedophiles, apart from being mainly men they come from all social and economic backgrounds – from the well-off professional classes to the unemployed. However, I do think that it’s plausible that stressful situations such as the threat of unemployment and subsequent loss of power might affect a man’s behaviour. The novel is set in 2011, during the last economic downturn, when employment was particularly insecure, and the stresses on a successful businessman in his fifties facing redundancy for the first time (as Paul is) would be significant. In my own family, which inspired some aspects of The Girl in His Eyes, my father was often out of work and our family was impacted by the resulting high stress levels and uncertainty about how we would get by. Paul’s current job insecurity is perhaps one factor that drives him to start grooming another girl.

Q. You’ve written the book in sections from three points of view. How comfortable was it to put yourself inside Paul’s head?

A. I started out with that structure as it seemed the best way to tell the story. I wanted to show how all three characters respond to extreme circumstances, in a way that would let me get inside their heads but allow me to pull back at times (eg to help the reader understand what was going on for a character).

Re Paul, I wanted to show the development of his attraction into an increasing obsession towards Emma, and how his distorted thinking enabled him to consider doing things other men wouldn’t. I had several men in my head who I drew from when creating him. While I enjoy writing ‘bad’ characters in general, it was certainly difficult and draining at times to go to some of the places I needed to go to with him.

Q. Describe your emotions since the publication of The Girl in his Eyes.

A. Huge relief and excitement that the novel was finally published, and gratitude that it was getting such strong (and mostly very positive) reactions from readers. Also I felt both anxious and at times frankly terrified when I began talking publicly in the media about my book and its inspiration – the family I grew up in and my own experiences of abuse as a child. Thankfully, I’ve had much support online and from those close to me. I’m very glad I was able to share some of what drove me to write this novel, and in doing so to spread the message that victims of sexual violence and abuse should not be shamed into silence. After speaking live to Jo Good on Radio London knowing that thousands had been listening, I was on such a high you wouldn’t believe. As I’ve said in other places, the speaking out I’ve done lately has definitely awoken my inner activist!

Q. What will you follow this book with – or do you think you deserve a rest?

31200537A. Though I care greatly about many social justice and women’s issues, I’m definitely a writer first and foremost. I’m pleased to be getting absorbed in work on a fourth novel, a psychological thriller with supernatural elements. I hope to finish the first draft before my third novel is published next May with Bombshell Books, an imprint of Bloodhound Books. It’s rather different from The Girl in His Eyes – a family drama with a brazenly comic streak, about a scientist who’s torn between her stalling career and the demands of her family. I think I needed to cheer myself up after the darkness in my first two books!

Q. Finally, I’ve worried about chapters in my own work in progress, where a character abuses a child. Do I have the right to write of this, not having experienced it myself? As my blog readers will know, I do think it raises questions, writing in the voice of those who’ve had experiences I don’t share.

A. I strongly feel that writers should write about anything they want or need to write about, no matter what they’ve experienced and what colour, gender etc they are.

Hear, hear!

I was very chuffed when Ensor commented: “Your questions are about the most thoughtful I’ve received, and I would have answered them all if not for the space constraint!” So if you want to hear answers to more of them, please let me know in the comments below and I’ll invite her back. Or take a look at her own Blog/website,Facebook,Twitter,Instagram and/or Goodreads pages.

© Jessica Norrie 2018; Answers ©Jennie Ensor 2018

Last but not least: any readers affected by issues raised in this blog post may want to consider contacting the National Association for People Abused in Childhood at https://napac.org.uk/ or by phoning 0808 801 0331.


	

A funny thing happened on the way to the story

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

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

storytelling 2

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

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

 

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

The extremely daring Compère…introduced the show as follows:

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

storytelling 1

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

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

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

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

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

You say what you have to say; it takes as long as it takes.

Sometimes a high quality experience crops up unexpectedly to enhance my life. One afternoon last week, when I was wasting time or so I thought on Facebook, up popped an advert. Julian Barnes would be in conversation with Hermione Lee, starting in four hours.

(Lucky me, to live in London and be free at short notice, with £11.50 to spare for a ticket plus the fare into Piccadilly. This is the sort of event many writers and would be writers are not able to attend. See Kit de Waal on the subject, here.)

I’ve always admired Julian Barnes’ writing. It was inspiring to see him in the flesh. Tall, spare, sardonic, dignified. He can do a lot with one raised eyebrow or a glance along his nose (not down his nose, I think). The hour began with Barnes reading from The Only Story, published on 1st February. (A similar reading is available here.) I’d read the first pages before the talk, and if I’m honest been underwhelmed by comparison with the opening to his last book, The Noise of Time. Now here were the necessary cadences to bring the prose alive, a helpful oral guide to approaching the text.

 

I’ve not been to many such events. I once saw Fay Weldon taking questions after a play at the Rosemary Branch in Islington. She was rumbustious, hearty and undeterred by whatever was thrown at her but I remember little of what she said.Then, not long before she died, I saw Doris Lessing take sole command of the wide National Theatre stage, unexpectedly elegiac and mild, reflecting with conviction and humour on a life interestingly lived. The Barnes event was more elegant, in the pretty little lecture theatre of the Royal Institution. It seemed more scripted, fittingly for Barnes who famously considers his choice of words so carefully and takes Flaubert as a model. There were no questions. Professor Hermione Lee has worked extensively with Barnes before. Even so, some of the observations she made took bravery, as this patrician man makes it clear when he doesn’t agree. His joke about a young man who for some reason had to walk out mid talk caused laughter that must have rung loud in the embarrassed departing ears.

Barnes lecture 1
Before the event

The Only Story is about love going right and love going wrong. The epigraph is Dr Johnson’s definition in his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language. “A novel: a small tale, normally of love.” The beginning poses the question: “Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more, or love the less and suffer the less?” As Barnes said “The first love becomes a template for all subsequent loves – either as what not to do, or as an ideal.”

Barnes spoke of memory, age, time, and autobiography in his fiction. Memory becomes less reliable as you age, more dependent on the imagination. He can’t use his own memories in his writing for at least five or six years after the event; they have to undergo some sort of internal process first, which he likened to composting. Some memories beg to be used in fiction, but the writer must shoehorn them in carefully or they’ll jar. He asks academics who study his books to alert him if he’s used an anecdote before.

Barnes lecture 7

He thought (though didn’t specifically advise) younger writers need to write chronologically at first, within a short time frame, or much of their narrative can only be guesswork. The writer over seventy has the privileged capacity to handle extended time periods. But, although Barnes often sets his fiction in the “neutral” suburbia of his youth, and prefers to write about inner emotions, the reader shouldn’t assume everything is autobiographical. A reader of The Only Story had cast him as the hero, and written: “I didn’t know you had two hip replacements!” His reply, eyebrow raised, sardonic smile: “One can make things up, you know. This is fiction.”

Many in the audience nodded vigorously at the points he made, but they were mostly much younger. Some took frantic notes and others were recording Barnes on their phones – was I mistaken or was he not wholly pleased? If they were creative writing students looking for specific recipes for planning novels, his answers were slippery but amusing. I think I’ve deciphered these quotes correctly from my jottings on the Evening Standard in the tube – I was less well equipped than the creative writing students and wanted simply to listen.

Lee: Why are your books so short?

Barnes: (purses lips, picks up book and leafs through): 213 pages? Then he quoted a favourite of his, the French writer Jules Renard who in a journal of some 1000 pages said: “All novels are too long”.

Lee: Well, I mean, “compressed”, then.

Barnes: Well, you say what you have to say, and it takes as long as it takes.

(Although I wondered if some of his writing is “compressed” because he’s been honing his craft for so long he now needs fewer words to express what he means.)

45369He sidestepped a question about planning with an anecdote about his friend Michèle Roberts and how she develops a novel. For his part, he strolls about until ideas come (“mooching and mulching”.) But he did discuss taking care with “balance”. For example, in Arthur and George, Arthur (Conan Doyle) could have become weighted down with research material whereas George ( a young man he championed in a court case) had only an ephemeral presence in the archives. It was a challenge not to reflect this contrast in how the text showed the characters.

Lee asked how he felt about the use of his name as an adjective “Barnesian”. He said he didn’t know what it meant, partly because he doesn’t read reviews. He doesn’t object to “Dickensian” or “Larkinesque” but wouldn’t want to explore such an interpretation of his own work because it might make his writing “self conscious and limited”. Then she approached writing in the first, second or third person, but again Barnes signposted books other than his own. All I can tell you is Julian Barnes recommends Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney as the best example of second person narration he knows. Here’s The Only Story‘s narrator (possibly a mouthpiece for JB, more probably not) on settings: “The time, the place, the social milieu. I’m not sure how important they are, in stories about love…and one other thing: don’t ask me about the weather.

Barnes lecture 4If I am making Barnes sound ungenerous or exclusive, I don’t mean to. He must enjoy talking about his work because there are several interviews available online for anyone not lucky enough to be able to attend such events. But his presentation finds a subtle, precise middle ground between publicity and dignity – much like his writing style – not giving too much away, tickling the audience’s interest, retaining his own privacy. Diffidence, form, subtlety are underrated in our screeching age, and this compressed event was perfect in its understatement.

There’s been much recent discussion of diversity in publishing. Here was a white, middle class, able bodied (the hips, anyway) European male in amusing conversation, before a mainly white audience of (presumably) Londoners. No barricades will be stormed by audiences attending events like this. Yet the decorous dialogue between two establishment figures reflected the style, wit, poignancy and insight into the human condition of Barnes’ writing, with lessons for all. I enjoyed it immensely.

©Jessica Norrie 2018