Sought and Found in Translation

My book became someone else’s book this week. A big round of applause, please, for Michaela Pschierer-Barnfather, who has produced Der Infinity-Pool and added a subtitle for good measure – Urlaub im Jetzt. No, I’m not sure what it means either, but it was approved by committee: this British novel was translated by an Austrian, with German and Swiss citizens to moderate. Meanwhile Isabelle Rouault-Röhlich, my French translator, has moved to Barcelona where she’s busy adding Catalan to her already fluent Spanish. If I wasn’t ashamed to be British, I’d have researched European funding for this project. They’re a great team and I’m so grateful to them all. european-union-155207_1280

When The Infinity Pool (henceforth TIP) was first launched, an Amazon representative got in touch raving about its prospects, and suggesting translations.  As a linguist myself I was intrigued and contacted translator friends who posted the project on bulletin boards. That’s not really the right way to do it, without a budget or any guarantee of the starry authorial universe Amazon implied. All I offered was a very small payment and the uncertain promise of a share of royalties. We committed to try and sell to mainstream publishers first, paying the translators an exit fee if their work wasn’t accepted, and to self publish if that didn’t work. The pluses for the translator were therefore very few, apart from adding 82,000 words of literary work to their CVs. It also gave them a break from the bank statements, tenders, medical records and insurance claims that form the normal daily fare of these talented, creative people (though Michaela was commended for the Stephen Spender Prize for poetry translation in 2015, and Isabelle has translated a children’s book, so these translators, should you need one, are versatile and come highly recommended).

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I was surprised and touched by how many people were keen! I set them the task of translating the first paragraph and a sample page of their own choosing, and ran the  results past German and French mother tongue friends, who voted unanimously for Michaela and Isabelle. The Society of Authors, with much justifiable harrumphing about exploiting translators, helped draw up a contract which improved matters slightly for them. I was chastened, remembering having to put my own day job first when writing the book, and we all became more flexible about dates.

The experience of being translated is a strange one. I speak fluent French, and have a  translation diploma myself, but it’s not my mother tongue. In French I could read and discuss how Isabelle conveyed my meaning. In German I was at Michaela’s mercy, and we had long phone calls and facetime sessions as she meticulously tried to make sense of what I was on about. If there’s one thing this experience has cured me of, it’s multi-claused sentences that dribble on forever – sorry, Michaela and Isabelle! I now have two articulate, sensitive women speaking on my behalf to other communities – it’s a generous and humbling experience. They’ve probably given my naive first novel much more sureness of touch, and I’ve discovered the pleasure of putting my trust in strangers (now friends, I hope).flags IP Eng

It’s been quite a journey. German commercial publishers didn’t offer on Der Infinity-Pool (henceforth DIP), though they commented favourably on the translation quality, so we’ve taken the Amazon route. Now Michaela is faced with marketing, the bane of all authors, self published or not. As she began to take that in, she commented she felt “stunned”, but was still generous enough to thank me for “taking her on board for this adventure!” – in her shoes, I’d want to drown me in TIP. As a non German speaker, it’s tricky to help her as much as I’d like. So, Bitte, any of you with German, Austrian, Swiss contacts or who know German speakers anywhere in the world – DIP is available worldwide! Please recommend it, buy it, review it, talk about it, especially to any Hollywood moguls passing through. I can provide electronic copies for review, and paperbacks (probably UK only but try your luck). I honestly feel it’s now more her book than mine, and she has worked so hard. I would love it to at least pay for her to have a holiday!flags copyright page

(Feel free to skip the next paragraph if you don’t read French!)

Et un appel aux amis français! Si vous avez même quelques minutes de liberté cet été vous pourriez aider Isabelle! Nous voudrions des lecteurs pour son texte (une partie ou tout, au choix) pour commenter et pour identifier les diablotins qui s’imposent pour dérouter même les plus professionnels des écrivains et des traducteurs. Je serais éternellement reconnaissante. Vous recevrez des citations dans l’édition finale et éventuellement une copie complémentaire. Je regrette que le budget ne permet pas de paiement supplémentaire, mais vous aurez l’honneur de participer dans mon projet européen. (Constatez-vous mon côté déplorable britannique? – je voudrais un service européen, mais je ne veux pas payer. Mais si un jour le version français devienne bestseller, je vous récompenserai. Enfin, prière de commenter en-dessous si vous pouvez nous assister.)flags IP French

Now you see why I didn’t translate TIP myself. However in writing that paragraph I learnt a new word I like very much: diablotins! I imagine diablotins as similar to the gnomes in Mrs Weasley’s garden, returning when the translator’s back is turned to play havoc with her prose. One especially persistent diablotin or possibly Maschinenteufel  has been messing with our DIP title page and delaying the paperback, but we have him beat now. They’re Brexit supporters one and all, I’m sure. Do help us chase them away together.

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

Lisbon: City of Books

I always thought the title “City of Books” belonged to Paris or Dublin, but now I’ve visited Lisbon. In four days I only scanned the first page but I sense volumes more beneath. Let me set the scene:

Lisbon scape 2

This is a city where the first time tourist needs a 3D map. Maybe our sense of direction is poor, or our orienteering skills have faded with satnavs and Google maps. Whatever the reason, we were pretty useless for the first two days, until we realised the roads we saw on the map as a simple left turn or clear right angle were just as likely to be a flight of steps, an alleyway, even an outdoor lift or funicular, possibly right above our heads or below our feet as they slithered on the shiny cobbles. “I’m sure we’ve already walked along here,” we heard a plaintive English voice say, and chuckled knowingly until our target eluded us yet again and we ceased to see the joke.

We climbed and we slipped, we clung by our fingernails to the back windowsills of trams with our belongings squeezed against our tummies to deter pickpockets, we gasped at stunning views, admired skilled graffiti and deplored senseless scrawls. We stepped over endless building sites and began to take Roman stones for granted. We encountered skilful fado buskers on anarchic exhibition sites.

Lisbon street art
busker in Alfama

We stood in queues for elevators where turning a simple corner would have brought us to the same spot, and we abandoned the laws of physics for we couldn’t understand how that could be.

Strange priests greeted us silently from behind closed grilles, next to ordinary homes selling cherry liqueur (ginjinha) for one euro a glass. A fierce and friendly lady gave us an impromptu but demanding Portuguese lesson for the full half hour of the tram out to see the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos at Belém (which means Bethlehem – it’s in Lisbon too) and when we arrived who was there but the archangel Gabriel himself/ herself/ theirself/ itself.

On the way back from meeting the archangel we failed to visit the main Art Gallery because although we succeeded in identifying the nameless bus stop from inside a bus with no route maps, the doors were broken and no passengers could disembark until the terminus.

I knew nothing of Portuguese literature so as always I turned to trusty TripFiction to help me, with their list of “Books set in Lisbon”. More confusion! The first two books to catch my eye had the same title: Night Train to Lisbon, and neither is by a Portuguese author. The one that intrigued me was by Swiss author Pascal Mercier.

Goodness, it’s a clever book. I thought it might be a bit pretentious, but translations, however well done, often have a slightly pompous tone, and European literary fiction always pins its intellectual colours to the mast more confidently than the diffident English. The book has many compensating qualities. The hero, Gregorius to the author, is a dry Swiss teacher, nicknamed Mundus by his pupils. He has an encyclopedic command of classical Greek, Latin and Hebrew, German mother tongue, and can quickly learn other languages. Suddenly throwing away the prudent habits of a lifetime when he’s entranced by the sibilant murmurings of a Portuguese lady he has possibly saved from jumping off a bridge, he sets off for Lisbon from Bern after coming across a strange book of musings and memories privately and posthumously published by a Portuguese doctor thirty years before. In a second hand bookshop. You know, as you do.

The attraction was that the unknown Portuguese woman’s vowels “came together in a melody that sounded much longer than it really was, and that he could have listened to all day long“. I’m a Spanish speaker, but I certainly preferred the sound of Portuguese. Gregorius/Mundus sets about learning it: “Before, it had possessed the magic of a jewel from a distant, inaccessible land, and now it was like one of a thousand gems in a palace whose door he had just pushed open.” He’s a natural linguist but even he has setbacks, days when the language won’t work for him and he can’t communicate. That, of course, has implications beyond the simple physical fact of hearing and forming the correct words.

Lisbon arch
Igreja do Carmo

In Lisbon Gregorius, “about to take his life into his own hands for the first time” (and always wondering what would have happened had he taken other paths earlier) sets about hunting down the surviving siblings of the author, Amadeu de Prado, and his friends, his colleagues, his patients… Amadeu was a popular doctor, “a dreamer and a poet…but at the the same time, someone who could resolutely direct a weapon or a scalpel.” But he made one mistake, which wasn’t a mistake. He followed the Hippocratic Oath and treated a hated servant of the dictator Salazar, thereby saving his life and enabling him to continue torturing hundreds of others. For this his local patients hounded and loathed him, so he tried to make up for it by working for the resistance.

When Amadeu reads, “the books seemed to disappear inside him, leaving empty husks on the shelf afterwards” and when he writes, his book is a series of philosophical ramblings, justifications, enquiries and self doubt. It resonates with Gregorius as he traipses or takes trains and trams about the city hunting down clues to Amadeu’s real state of mind. In the process Gregorius breaks his glasses, leading to much clear/blurred new/old vision related imagery, plays a lot of chess, stares at the outside of old houses and gently breaks into Amadeo’s old, now abandoned school to set up a temporary HQ.

Lisbon graffitti
street in Alfama

Gregorius’ many train trips, like those of the man he seeks, enable comparisons between stations and the stages of life, views rushing past, unscheduled halts, fellow passengers and so on. He tracks down Amadeu’s contemporaries – and how lovely to read a book with so many elderly characters who are not defined simply by being old, but have individual traits, personalities and plot functions. On his journey Gregorius/Mundus learns to make friends, attempts to square the circle of Amadeu’s judge father who administered the law he hated under the dictatorship, and liberates Amadeu’s sisters from their memories – or does he?

For all Amadeu’s intellect, “there was only one thing he couldn’t do: celebrate, play, let himself go”. The key may be held by a woman he admired, perhaps loved, who is not intellectual but calm and reassuring: ‘ “Not everything can be important, and not always,” (Maria João) said. “That would be awful.” ‘ You’d have to read the book to find out whether Amadeu, and thus Gregorius, sort out the meaning of life to their satisfaction or achieve “the calm of someone who always seemed to know who he was and where he belonged“. But if you’re on a trip to Lisbon it will be a good companion, with each location carefully namechecked and described. Maybe the Tourist Office provides Night Train to Lisbon walks. (Just make sure you get on the right one!)

Lisbon nativity scene detail
Details from a nativity scene in Sao Roque

Gregorius finds the Portuguese people he meets warmly receptive to his needs and requirements. They go the extra mile to make him comfortable and guide him in their confusing, stimulating city. We found this too. Perhaps the Portuguese have a natural inclination (like their city) to ramblings and questions, to wondering why things and others are what they seem, and whether they can be trusted or, in another light, reveal themselves as something else entirely? What is a human being – or more exactly, who is a human being? What they think themselves to be, or what others think of them? And what of change, in different lights, at different times, from one age to another, in different states of health and solitary or befriended? What of age (Gregorius is fifty-seven): how does that enable or confuse self knowledge and how does our awareness of death affect us as we grow older? Gregorius dreads death but in Lisbon takes up smoking for the first time. It is not always the young or uneducated who act most foolishly.

Here’s a piece of good advice from Gregorius’ one close friend (a Greek optician) back home in Switzerland: ‘ “Talk to the doctors in your mother tongue. Fear and foreign languages don’t go well together.” ‘ He’s caught the Portuguese aphorisms bug: they turned up in restaurant menus, on walls and café toilets. And they seem to be something of a literary tradition.

Night Train to Lisbon – if you’re still on board, we’re approaching the final stop – is not all philosophy: it has a plot, dialogue and love interest too. It’s a book for book lovers, for linguists, teachers, doctors and patients, puzzle solvers and chess players, travellers, poets, those with a conscience, who have lost or retained religious faith or who have something to celebrate or regret. The fictitious book (Amadeu’s) that this fictitious hero (Gregorius/Mundus) is almost literally tracking down mirrors (and quotes) another, real book, O Livro do Desassossego (listen to those sibilants) by Fernando Pessoa (although Pessoa’s conceit was to claim other characters had written it, in typical multi layered Portuguese fashion). In English The Book of Disquiet, it’s a source of great pride to Lisboetas and Mercier quotes it in his prologue: “Each of us is several, is many, is a profusion of selves. So the self who disdains his surroundings is not the same as the self who suffers or takes joy in them. In the vast colony of our being there are many species of people who think and feel in different ways.”

Lisbon praca do comercio
Praca do Comercio

I’ll write about The Book of Disquiet next week, as I’m still lost somewhere in the first 100 pages, and I hope to write about Saramago, Portuguese Nobel Literature Prize winner. There’s no need for a health warning: from what I’ve read so far the heavyweights are not too impenetrable – they check themselves from time to time with self deprecation and humour. I’d rather Pessoa than Henry James. But that’s for another journey.

Inexcusably, the only book I bought in Lisbon’s oldest bookshop (it’s a city of old fashioned bookshops, music shops, haberdashers and hat shops: use them while you can) was for my translator daughter who likes to teach herself new languages by reading  Harry Potter. But back home it turned out she already had it and would have preferred a different volume, in German.

Meanwhile I wonder which city others would call the City of Books?

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

For Eggheads in search of answers…

Eggs 5

Oh dear! People said my Easter Eggheads Book Quiz was too hard! I didn’t mean to scramble anyone’s brains. Here are the answers, so you can pretend you knew them all along and pass on the pain to your friends:

  1. Who printed a story in which a “good wyf” from Southern England thought a merchant from the North was speaking French, because he asked for eggys which she knew as eyren?  The clue was in the verb, to print. The printer was William Caxton in 1490, and he tells the story to illustrate the (unchanged) difficulties of a proofreader and typesetter, in his prologue to the Eneydes (Virgil’s Aenid). This had already been translated from Latin to French and he was now printing an English version. Actually I found the reference on a post about Shrove Tuesday, here.
  2. 41kgazntxvl-_sx307_bo1204203200_Who shouted “What, you egg! […] Young fry of treachery!” and what is he doing to whom as he shouts it? […] is the moment in Act 4, scene 2 of Macbeth when the first murderer stabs Lady MacDuff’s son. The murderer calls the young boy “you egg” to show he represents the next generation.
  3. Which Shakespearean hero shares his name with a famous egg dish? This is Benedict (aka Benedick), from Much Ado About Nothing. Eggs Benedict is an American dish invented by a Wall Street broker, and has absolutely nothing ado with Shakespeare. 
  4. Who rode westward on Good Friday 1613? Good Friday, 1613. Riding westward is a poem by the metaphysical poet John Donne. It begins: Let mans Soule be a Spheare… I didn’t know this poem either until I found the reference in an excellent Guardian article about Easter in Literature.
  5. 406373Who met Mephistopheles during an Easter walk with his friend Wagner? Goethe’s hero Faust was out walking at Easter with his friend Wagner, when they met a poodle who followed them home and turned out to be the devil in disguise. Faust then made a famous pact with him. Faust was first published in 1808, so if you were thinking of a more famous Wagner, the composer Richard, I’m afraid that was a red herring – he wasn’t born until 1813. But the moral of the story is, take care around poodles.
  6. At the beginning of which children’s story from 1854 is the King of Paflagonia so absorbed in a letter from the King of Crim Tartary “that he allows his eggs to get cold, and leaves his august muffins untasted“? This is the delightful The Rose and the Ring: a Fireside pantomime, by W M Thackeray. Politically incorrect fun still, as old Countess Gruffanuff falls for young Prince Giglio. Thackeray’s illustrations are very funny too.  612b231allql-_sl500_sx319_bo1204203200_
  7. Which Victorian artist was described by his friend Charles Dickens as “sweet-tempered, humorous, conscientious, thoroughly good, and thoroughly beloved“? Who other than the pre-Raphaelite painter Augustus Leopold Egg, whose name I had wrongly remembered as a character in a Dickens novel.
  8. What was the name of Raffles’ sidekick? Bunny” Manders is Watson to Raffle’s Holmes in the series of novels by Victorian writer E W Hornung. No, I haven’t read them either.
  9. Who told Alice in Wonderland “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean“? Humpty Dumpty, when she met him sitting on a wall, in Alice through the Looking Glass. They argue about it and he cracks first.83346
  10. Which decadent hero lived in West Egg? Jay Gatsby, from Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. West (and East) Egg are fictional settlements of nouveaux riches and old money, based on similar places in Long Island. 
  11. Which seminal moment in Irish history forms the subject matter for Sean O’Casey’s play The Plough and the StarsThe Easter Uprising against the British took place in Dublin in April 1916. 15 Irish nationalists identified as leaders were afterwards executed at Kilmainham Jail. Whether they are described as traitors or heroes depends very much which historical or literary account you read.
  12. 18076Who “came down to breakfast one morning, lifted the first cover he saw, said ‘Eggs! Eggs! Eggs! Damn all eggs!’ in an overwrought sort of voice, and instantly legged it for France, never to return to the bosom of his family?” This was Lord Worplesdon, described in Jeeves Takes Charge by P G  Wodehouse. You could read it, or watch the BBC series where Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie acted Jeeves and Wooster just spiffingly.
  13. In which novel by Agatha Christie is there a character called Egg? Hermione Lytton Gore is nicknamed and always referred to as “Egg” in Three Act Tragedy, a Christie novel of 1934. There’s always another Christie novel you haven’t read…
  14. 4025Who liked “a speckled brown egg from a French Marans hen, boiled for exactly three and a third minutes” for breakfast? This is James Bond, described in From Russia with Love. My source was another Guardian article, on breakfasts in literature
  15. Which very sad black comedy originally starred Albert Finney and has been revived since with Clive Owen, Eddie Izzard and Miriam Margolyes among others in its cast? The original play was A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, by Peter Nichols in 1967, about the daily routines of parents with a very severely disabled daughter.
  16. When could you next hope to see the Oberammergau Passion Play? It’s only performed every ten years, and the next one will be in 2020.
  17. What colour were Sam-I-am’s eggs? Green! Read Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss to find out if Sam-I-Am ever does persuade the child to eat them.51n595qwkol-_sx360_bo1204203200_
  18. Who wrote the original story and script for “The Long Good Friday”? This 1980 gangster movie was scripted from his own screenplay by Barrie Keefe.
  19. What hatched at the beginning of a story from an egg lying on a moonlit leaf? Eric Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar, going strong since 1969.  I couldn’t quote the first page exactly as it would be too high a percentage of the entire text to pass without copyright infringement, but most parents and teachers should have recognised this. The first bedtime story I ever read to my babies, I’ve also taught it at evening classes for adults in French and Spanish. They tell me it did wonders for their fruit shopping vocabulary.4948
  20. Who made the assorted sweets from which if you were very unlucky, you might pick out a rotten egg flavoured one? This was one of the less sought after flavours of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans, which you could buy in  sweet shops frequented by Harry Potter and his fellow Hogwartians.

A question some of you may have found easier: Which Bennet sister visited Rosings on “Easter-day” and was told by Lady Catherine de Burgh that she would never play the piano really well?

A question I completely forgot to ask, which would have brought my quiz more up to date: Which depressed egg is a Japanese cartoon Superhero?

Do let me know if you can think of any more. The deadline’s a week before Easter 2018, whenever that is.

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Here’s another egg quote, from the Arden Dictionary of Shakespeare Quotations, compiled by jane Armstrong

©Jessica Norrie 2017

Introducing Ed Itor, bully and critical friend…

…or more correctly her* multiple personalities, Copy Ed, Structural Ed and Picture Ed. They work as a team although as in all teams not all of them are always fit to participate.Sometimes they’re benign, and can’t find much wrong. That’s not such good news as it sounds – it only means they’re having an off day or they’ve lost their specs. They’ll find plenty to mutter about next time they look.

*You thought Ed was a man didn’t you? Ha! Ed is short for Edwina.

Ed Tracking 3

Sometimes their advice is straightforward. With an airy swipe Structural Ed points out the end of a paragraph would be better at the beginning, (or indeed the start of the book better at the end). Or not there at all. They monitor my daily allowance of telling not showing, telling me to dramatize more or change everything to dialogue. I love interior monologue, but neither Copy Ed or Structural Ed agree with me on that one so if you’re one of my exclusive group of readers you have the Eds to thank for pruning my neural suckers, and also for weeding if not wholly zapping my more clumsy metaphorical parasites.

If Structural Ed can’t find fault with anything major, such as the setting, characters, time scale, tone, or theme, Copy Ed, who has a more antsy persona, zooms in for a good old nitpick of my commas, m and n dashes, indents, and ellipseez (is that the plural of ellipsis?) She loves nothing more than a session of semi-colonic irrigation. The semicolon is, for me, the writer’s third gear. (When I learnt to drive, cars had only four gears and my favourite was third. You could start in third if you had to – downhill in my ancient Mini I often did – and complete whole journeys, up to quite a speed.) Ed tracking 1Often I’m not sure whether to continue with my sentence or leave it at that; at such times the semicolon is my friend. Copy Ed performs a regular purge; Structural Ed, meanwhile, is on immigration control. She’s spotted too many Points Of View (POVs to the initiated). Slipping in and out too often, with no legitimate reason to be in the text and frequently incorrect usage. They’re unreliable, multiple, I should insist they get entry visas or ban most of them altogether.

Picture Ed is quieter. Maybe I’ll make him male since we all need a consistent pronoun (Copy Ed told me that). He turns up fairly reliably every week with some copyright free photos I can use for the blog. Sometimes I’m short of ideas and if it wasn’t for the inspiration from his photos there wouldn’t be a post at all (for example when I corresponded from Leyton High Road). Sometimes he goes AWOL, off on some research assignment or just looking for a battery, and then I have to do a drawing, or create some sort of montage to illustrate my post that week. To that end, while I was busy taking photos of my keyboard in the bin (What? See below…) some gremlin stuck two sets of brackets in that paragraph! How the Eds are shaking their heads! And all those exclamation marks… Tut Tut.

Recently the Eds have taken to turning up when I’m reading the work of other authors. They sneak up behind me to point out that J K Rowling…really does use…far too many ellipses…when she wants… to show people …breathlessly…running away.. (and why not just say “they” instead of “Harry, Ron and Hermione” every time? She might have cropped a few pages that way.) Louis de Bernières gave a child two different ages within one page early in The Dust that Falls from Dreams, spoiling the rest of the book for me so much that I can’t find the exact reference because I gave it to Oxfam. Do read The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. It’s a mostly brilliant book, great setting, characters, themes – but what’s with all the would’ve and must’ve let alone she’d’ve and he’d’ve and the extraordinary he ought to’ve in an otherwise formal literary tone? The Essex Serpent‘s Ed must’ve’d a bad day because the ending is disappointingly inconclusive, I might add… However Linda Grant in The Dark Circle can’t be blamed for inconclusiveness (inconclusivity?). She wraps up an otherwise sympathetically told, well paced, interestingly researched story of diverse believable characters with a brief part three information dump, as though she resented having to spend any more time with the reader.

 

Less recently, James, Faulkner, Woolf, Proust and Joyce wrote such long sentences they collectively traumatised all the Eds they knew, causing them to bluster hysterically and go off to find a pier to jump off before changing their minds because after all it really was a question of style or perhaps only a passing thought and such thoughts come and go never knowing which way they’ll lead a protagonist next on the great despairing journey through a world without the comfort of religious certainty full of railways and Guinness illegitimate children shame haunted governesses colonial unfairness mint juleps charlatans snobs and magic in the shrubbery? These past traumas may account for why the Eds of today are so keen on brevity, so down on adverbs and so fixated with colonic purging.

13732457(I’m a few chapters into the dense and beautifully written On Golden Hill by Francis Spufford though, and even the Eds can find nothing wrong yet. So as the best fiction should, it really is helping me escape into a different world.)

When the Eds mess with my reading mind I tell them to go off duty. Can’t I even read a book just for enjoyment any more? But I wish they’d turn up for emails, facebook posts and notes to the window cleaner. They seem to think that’s beneath their notice and yet I can assure them, I make plenty of errors then too.

But to a writer of course the Eds are helpful, really. I wouldn’t be without them, really (were those reallys really necessary, given that I’m not writing dialogue here…reallys seep from my neural byways along with actuallys and of courses and justs. They must be stopped! We don’t need my authorial interior monologue as well as interior monologues from all those jostling POVs.)

The only one I (really) can’t see the use for is their dark shadow, Mess with the Ed. (Copy Ed: Your readers won’t get that unless they read it aloud with a London accent. Me: Who cares? Nobody reads my stuff anyway. But since you insist I’ll add an apostrophe and change the e to lower case to show the dropped h. And if anyone notices maybe they’ll comment and then we’ll see who’s right! Structural Ed: Less interior monologue here, please. Get on with it!)

So – Mess with the ‘ed is the author’s equivalent of live-in emotional abuser. Isn’t your writing crap? Who cares what you have to say? Your characters are unbelievable (not in a good way); your themes pointless; your setting blurry; your ideas out of date; your prose over/underwritten; your dialogue banal, your plot – what plot? You think you’re an author? You think it’s worth even revising this so called first draft? You think the Eds don’t have better things to do?

Ed keyboard in bin 2I came across this article by William Ryan. I waved it jauntily at Mess with the ‘ed. But this week, even Ryan’s clarity and common sense ain’t working. I gaze at the first draft and really just want to give up. It’s uncanny but the keyboard has gone on strike in sympathy: despite changed batteries it’s skipping letters, disconncting, takng th sense frm my words even if I bang it like a high stepping typewriter.. Copy Ed’s refusing even to pick up her red pen until I invest in a new one…my inspiration is draining fast…Dementors loom on the horizon…letters n spaces dispersng… wht’s hppning….where are Harry, Ron and Hermione when you need thm?

©Jessica Norrie 2017

Fictional, factual, feminist!

Last week I posted two days late for World Book Day, this week two days late for International Women’s Day. So what? Every day should be international women’s day, until the ridiculous imbalance between two types of human being is resolved.

That’s a big ask, so I’ll start with a few examples you can show your daughters and your sons. Stand by for two heroines from my childhood reading, two from that of my children, and a couple of adults. Some fictional, some factual, all pointing in the right direction though the route may look circuitous to some of you.

IWD LIW 3
Photo from South Dakota State Historical Society, reproduced in “Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder” by John E Miller, University of Missouri Press 1998

The American writer Laura Ingalls Wilder fictionalised her own pioneer childhood. In the second half of the 19th century , Laura, the second of Pa and Ma’s four daughters,  travelled in a covered wagon from Wisconsin to South Dakota, encountering meteorological and man made hazards all the way. I read her books as a child in suburban North London. Her family were (had to be) independent, tough, adaptable and with four daughters, Pa lacked the help he needed to tend the farm they eventually settled. So Laura persuaded her mother to let her help him, and as he said, it was just the ticket. We learn that if a man gives a woman an opportunity, she’ll repay it manifold. Along the way, we learn how to clean a gun and make bullets (as clear a description as any Boy Scout manual, perhaps Trump should ban it as terrorist training), how to build a log cabin and all the necessary furniture, how to cross a river in flood or survive a blizzard on the prairie, teach a class of students when both teacher and pupils are the same age (sixteen), treat malaria, break in a horse, and make a poke bonnet. Without transgressing the politics of her stratified and conservative society, Laura Ingalls Wilder makes the strongest of social, business and emotional cases for girls and boys to be educated and valued equally.

Dido Twite is entirely fictional. She’s the heroine of Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase series but first appears in the second book. A neglected London waif with an eye for the main chance, innate crafty intelligence and a yearning for affection, Dido is  resourceful, fit and adaptable from day one. She needs to be: over the course of seven books, she survives a burning shipwreck, comes round from a coma on a whaling ship in Nantucket, foils at least four treacherous plots against the king including one where a giant gun is to be fired across the Atlantic to displace the UK (sound familiar?) overpowers a tyrannical queen who practises human sacrifice, escapes an overturned coach with a drunken driver, a plague of spiders, and various poisoning attempts, stops St Paul’s Cathedral rocking on its foundations, shines a light on hypocrisy and privilege, cares for the sick and frail, rescues children trapped labouring down mines, puts an end to dangerous sects and stands up against injustice and cruelty. (This potted biography may be muddled; the books are complex and I’m due a reread. Anyway, she’s a helluva role model.)

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The only edition of any Harry story I could find with Hermione on the cover

My children read these, took them in and then along came Hermione Granger and Lyra Belacqua. You all know Hermione: the ambitious want-it-all student who got a bit tired and stressed when a spell helped her attend several classes simultaneously to beat timetable clashes, thus enabling her to learn enough magic to get hapless Ron and dull Harry out of their latest dilemma all while juggling the two different worlds she lives in. (Dull Harry? Yes, I’m afraid I can only ever think of him as a plot dump with very little character of his own. But Hermione, Ginny, Luna Lovegood…J.K Rowling to my mind writes better female characters.) And both Emma Watson and J K Rowling have since put some of the Harry Potter money where their mouths are, promoting women’s rights in various practical ways. I can’t be bothered with the carping about the dresses they wear while doing so: nobody criticises the way men dress when they’re trying to better their world (all the time, since the dawn of it).

114982The only one of these heroines created by a man is Philip Pullman’s Lyra Belacqua, due to resurface soon, I’m delighted to hear. Time travel? Pah! This heroine does inter galactic travel (I think – my grasp of physics is less good than Pullman’s). She’s feisty (aren’t they all?), a bit uncouth (shades of Dido there), an incredibly fast learner and again like Dido, in need of a loving family. Instead her mother is Mrs Coulter, surely a magical version of Mrs Thatcher/Theresa May with her love of good accessories and her twists into sheer evil. She’s not pictured on any of the covers I found (strange: the iconography of women’s beauty is all over the place, but put an intelligent heroine on a book cover?) However, here’s an earlier Philip Pullman heroine, the wonderful 19th century detective Sally Lockhart. Who needs Holmes and Watson with her around? There are four Sally Lockhart books, all quite gripping.

 

IWD SdeBThis article would be too long if I went into the writers for adults who inspired my feminism, so I’ll just cite the first and the most recent. In the 1980s I studied Simone de Beauvoir’s fiction and how it related to her life and philosophy; I haven’t read it since but suspect it would still stand up, in a good translation. At university my path crossed very briefly with an author whose work was published two days ago on International Women’s Day 2017. How about this for an in your face title and cover, by the co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party which now has twice as many members as UKIP. Catherine Mayer is of course not fifty feet tall in real life, but history may well see her as a giantess. I bet she was brought up on  Laura and Dido.

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©Jessica Norrie 2017

A Word About World Book Day

I support everything World Book Day stands for. Who wouldn’t want to support reading, advance literacy, encourage authors and readers, swell the book borrowing and buying audience of all ages and races? Do you sense a BUT coming? It’s only a small one.

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Ginny and Ron Weasley, 2002

The schools I taught in and the ones where my children went celebrated World Book Day. One way to do this was by inviting the children and staff to dress up. (Fortunately for you, ex colleagues, I’ve lost the photos.) For me as a parent it was, mostly, fun deciding with the children who they would dress up as, how to put together the costumes, working out the inevitable challenges (Babar’s ears, Pirate Pete’s parrot). Some of that time I was working from home as a translator; at others I had access to my own school library and stationery cupboard which clearly did make my challenge easier. Even so, making a costume at home, if the school gives you enough notice, is not usually difficult.

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Babar, 1998

It’s creative, collaborative, and involves exploring the story, characters and illustrations in more depth than you do by “just” reading the books where they feature (I put “just” in inverted commas because learning to read and continuing to want to read are incredibly complex processes – but that’s for another post).

Making a costume together promotes all the following skills: gross and fine motor skills; listening; decision making; art and design; interpretation; acting/role play; compromise; language – receptive and active; imagination; mathematics (measuring, perception, shape, calculation); sense of humour (yes, humour is an innate skill but if it doesn’t get practice, it withers). And it promotes parenting skills and the right to a childhood. All that, just from making a costume! (Oh, and thrift, as ideas can be reused – Babar can be adapted for Jill Murphy’s Mr or Mrs Large, or for The Elephant and the Bad Baby. Meg can grow into Ginny Weasley, the Worst Witch or witchever you prefer.)

So I was saddened to read this year, that by 27th February British people had spent at least £386,000 on World Book Day costumes. If you DO want to take the quick and easy route, of course you could buy next year’s costumes in the Tesco sale now. When I was trying to consult the Asda cheap costumes page a BMW advert kept driving over it: perhaps you could wear officially licensed Dorothy Deluxe Red Slippers available on Amazon for £80.45 as you go for a spin. But if parents are going to spend £80.45, or £386,000+ for World Book Day, shouldn’t it be on books and literacy projects, not in supermarkets and online giants?

There’s a way of getting ahead of the game for next year, spending just £1 and benefiting Book Aid International, by using one of their 18 costume templates. The World Book Day site’s inspiration page also refers you to Book Aid International, and has plenty of other ideas. Book Aid International aim to equip and run libraries in sub-Saharan Africa: a better cause than Tesco, surely, at 25% of the sale price of their cheapest item today? (I’ve added the link to show I bear no grudges). Tesco do at least manage one black child model out of 20+ (unless they’re all hiding under the superhero costumes), but Book Aid International – sadly, in view of their aims, but in fact in view of everything – none at all. Whoops, I’m going off post again.

The photos on this blog post, rather dog eared and faded now, from pre digital days, are not intended to be smug. I was a good parent in this respect because it appealed to my own interests, but inadequate in others (nutrition, sport, and patience come to mind). What my photos illustrate are happy memories of joint parent/child projects, inspired by books we read together. I’m now milking the experience by writing in the novel in progress about the relationship between parents and schools and the everyday pressures and joys involved for both – the first rough draft went to the agent this week which is a milestone of sorts. March 2020 update: that novel became The Magic Carpet. It took off successfully and got some great feedback, but you could help me celebrate this year’s World Book Day by buying, reading and reviewing it – please! I do have some review copies available (ebook or paperback with UK postage only). Please comment below if you’d be interested in reviewing it.  

I’m quoting from the Manchester Evening News now: With the … finding that 28 per cent of children will choose to dress up as fictional characters that aren’t even from books, and a further 33pc as a character from a book they have never even read, the company is reminding people to not lose sight of the real meaning of the event

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The Artful Dodger, 2001

We used to have a poster at school, in the library, which we showed to parents who asked about tutors and workbooks and extra homework. Often they were stressed themselves and were stressing their children and the poster was intended not to criticise but to help. It looked more exciting than this but all it said was:

Ten Ways to improve reading:

1.Read. 2. Read. 3.Read. 4.Read. 5.Read. 6.Read. 7.Read. 8.Read. 9.Read. 10.Read. 

I would add: 11. Enjoy! (See my post from 2016 for some more ideas – and they don’t involve dressing up.)

No children were hurt in the making of this post and we all continue to live happily ever after.

© Jessica Norrie 2017

Harry Potter and the Athenian Quest

My children were the same age, more or less, as Harry Potter, and grew up with him, their interests and concerns maturing alongside his. It was Harry Potter who got my son Robert – for years more into cartoons and articles about football – to grips with reading long, unillustrated texts, paving the way for Philip Reeve and Philip Pullman later on.

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In 2007, Robert and I went away, to join a group, none of whom we knew yet, on an activity holiday with plenty to offer both of us. I never went on holiday without lots of reading matter, and took what I thought were “good” books along for him as well, but without much hope that he’d read them. In pre Kindle days it was a heavy, bulky labour of love.

Rob seemed sad in the days before we left. He liked the holiday idea, but was upset because the final Harry Potter book was due out the day after we were to leave. When he returned all his friends would have read it, and he anticipated having to hide himself away until he’d finished it too, or they’d tell him what had happened. Rumour had it this was going to be a thick book, so he’d be hidden away a long time. Even if he avoided  friends and the media, how would we stop his sister spilling the Bertie Bott’s every flavour beans?

There was no way to get it before we left. Bookshops had strict confidentiality agreements, stocks were locked up at secret locations, copies couldn’t be pre-ordered for dispatch to a remote Greek island, reachable only by several coaches and two ferry trips after flying to Athens. Rob was philosophical, but by taking us out of the UK on such an occasion, I had blundered, and I felt guilty. He packed the other books in silent, dreary politeness.

At Heathrow there was the usual dull hanging about after check in. HP bpopks 1-6Harry Potter posters popped up everywhere. News on the terminal monitors showed children and adults queuing up outside bookshops due to open at midnight, being interviewed about how excited they were. The airport shop windows were swathed in paper, ready for a grand unveiling – just after our plane was due to leave. You could buy the other six – but those we’d read already.

A delay was announced. Hope glimmered: we might be able to buy a copy. But we were called to the departure lounge. There we sat, bored and frustrated, in no man’s land, away from the bright lights of the shopping concourse, but not airborne yet either. My son grew quieter and quieter. I felt more and more guilty.

The plane was called, over five hours late. We arrived in Athens, trailed miserably through customs and got to our hotel as dawn was breaking. There was to be a late morning ferry from Piraeus, and the tour operators postponed breakfast so we could get an hour of sleep in the rooms we’d paid for and expected to use all night. Rob crashed out straight away, jaded and fed up. It was very, very hot.

I thought hard. My father had been a bookseller, and I knew about big events in the publishing world. Here we were in a European capital – there had to be a bookshop somewhere eager to conjure euro treasure from a pile of pristine Harry Potters. Leaving Rob asleep, I went to try and find one.

After my sleepless night, my eyes felt gritty and my tummy wasn’t quite behaving. I had rather a large sum of cash on me that I should really have left in the bedroom safe but I was too exhausted to think straight. I wandered away from the hotel, whose name I instantly forgot. After one block I realised all the street names were written in the Greek alphabet and I’d have no idea how to get back unless I noted some landmarks. Ah – SEX SHOP! screamed huge red readable capitals on the corner. That would have to do. I was just off Syntagma Square, but I’d never been to Athens before and didn’t realise. I’d left my 13  year old son sleeping, oblivious to my absence in a foreign city, we had to be at breakfast within an hour or we’d miss the coach transfer, and I’d prioritised a lone quest in a strange place for a book from another country… It’s not what the parenting manuals advise.

I crossed to a more salubrious side of the square and chose a road at random. Abracadabra! There was a bookshop, the owner just opening the shutters! In the window – two different editions of the new Harry Potter, child and adult. I rushed in, I gabbled, I almost kissed the man, I explained my son’s narrow escape from being marooned on a Harry Potter-less island! He was a serious chap and didn’t respond with due appreciation of the miracle he’d wrought. That would be 33 euros and would I like it gift wrapped? 33 euros! But I didn’t hesitate. I paid, fairly danced back to the hotel and woke Rob, who was very grumpy.

“We have to go to breakfast,” I said.”Can you fit another book in your case, I’ve no space?”

“I’m not hungry and I don’t want more books, we’ve got loads already.”

“OK,” I said. “I’ll see if someone else wants it then, it’s ever so big and I can’t carry it myself.” I let him catch a glimpse.

It was one of those moments that sum up what motherhood is about. Rob shot up from the bed, yelling: “HARRY POTTER!” Later on the ferry, someone saw him reading it and word travelled. “How did you get THAT?” An English crowd gathered in wonder.

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Robert had immediate kudos on that holiday. Some savvy people were having it flown out from the UK, but it wouldn’t be there for at least five days and he had a head start. They queued up to persuade him to pass it on to them when he’d finished it. They pestered him to know what was happening until he pointed out that if they left him to it, he’d be able to pass the book on sooner. In the end, he chose a pleasant, mild man, perhaps in his mid thirties, for his successor, buried himself in HP emerging only to swim, wind surf and eat and steadfastly refused to divulge any secrets.

Back in London, two months later, a large parcel arrived out of the blue. It contained a generous selection of recent feature film DVDs. There were hours of entertainment for the whole family as the nights drew in and wind surfing became a distant memory. With the gift was a note: “To Robert. Thank you so much for making my holiday so special by choosing me to read your Harry Potter book after you. Wishing you and your family well for the future. Yours, D.”

Wishing you well too, D, wherever you are. What a great time we all had in the end. It was our first holiday without his father and sister, so it could have been disastrous. There was that delayed start, and the teenagers I’d expected would be company for Rob all turned out to be toddlers. Instead the adults with their shared Harry Potter interest helped him to grow up and he’s now a singer songwriter, telling his own stories in his wonderful voice, while the setting inspired my own first novel too.

 

© Jessica Norrie 2016