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.
When a plot includes a pregnancy going to term or religious festivals that move around the lunar calendar it’s important to be precise with the timescale. I fine tuned my first two novels as I went along. Novel 3, currently under submission, is a response to a specific event, and ends at a point when the issues first raised begin to be resolved. All three books are “contemporary”, taking place not long before the projected year of publication.
Now, writing in New Normal times, the dates of the story are even more crucial. If the events I’m beginning to explore for Novel 4 take place before December 2019 the pandemic needn’t figure. Any story set later than that must now include the effects of Covid-19 on timing and location, wherever they belong on a scale from wispy background rumours to overwhelming. Otherwise it would be like setting a book in 1916 and not mentioning World War 1. So many political, physical and local variables govern the viral load infecting my story that I must factor them in from the start, or my timeline may be wrong, my characters unlikely and my events impossible for their setting and situations. I’ll sound as confused as our Prime Minister.
Although my chosen theme could work either side of the pandemic, so many of the story props around it will change that I can’t put off the decision. And, unlike for a book set during the Spanish flu epidemic, or during the worst of HIV infection, the number of victims is still unknown and the consequences and effects of lockdown haven’t been objectively measured. If I start my contemporary novel NOW, by the time it’s published my assumptions for how it progresses and ends could seem ridiculous.
Where have all the
Perhaps they’re on Zoom…
In my case I’ll probably cop out and either not write at all or set the story well before bells ring in the new year 2020. (The many writers of Brexit novels couldn’t see they had the same problem, although the agents and publishers who rejected them did. Nor did they realise readers might be bored or repulsed by the subject matter, or, if interested, would by the time of publication know more about it than the author.)
Are writers in other genres any better off?
There are some great possibilities for crime writers. Smuggling and doctored vaccines come to mind, although it would be hard to better The Third Man. But plots can’t include: empty domestic property (though lots of empty workplaces); meetings, rallies, parties, institutional education, entertainment, non domestic accommodation, public events or sports venues. There’ll be no unobtrusive shadowing people through crowded streets or detectives interviewing ancient relations in care homes. Characters can’t travel far from home, let alone internationally, or use public transport without sticking out like a sore thumb; and they’re unlikely to go to hospital unless they have Covid-19. The public, bored at their windows, will denounce anything out of the ordinary for the sheer fun of it before the plot can develop; hunches will be hard to follow up and helpful contacts go awol; the criminal fraternity will be preoccupied looking after number one.
Romance is online only. Strangers can’t find love in bars, theatres, parks or at dinner parties. Physical contact is ill-advised even if they do meet. Attractiveness, let alone kissing, is just not the same with everyone in face masks. The media and a vigilante public hamper running secret affairs. Office romances don’t work from home and young nurses are too haggard and stressed to catch the eye of hardworking doctors. Lady Chatterley is indoors social isolating with her vulnerable husband and even Mrs Bennett reluctantly recognises now is not the time for matchmaking. Blood vows and pacts, balls, weddings, or christenings? Certainly not! Whether cops or lovers, characters will have little change in routine or conversation to propel the narrative forward. No chance meetings, few coincidences, most of their time spent staring at screens. Today’s idea of a giddy whirl is solving a Sudoku while the lockdown beer loaf bakes, and optimism means hoping the Patience will work out.
It’s easier for some authors. In the Fantasy genre anything can happen. (That’s why I tend not to read fantasy; I prefer the tension of limited possibilities – though not as limited as currently.) History is already over, so barring differences of interpretation and fact selection, fictionalising events involves the same storytelling skills it always did. As for Horror, Science Fiction and Dystopia – well. That’s what we’re in now, isn’t it? I predict most 2020 novels will fall into these categories.
A week is a long time in pandemics so having had the idea for this post, I’m not waiting till my usual Friday to publish. It might be out of date by then. I also wanted to remind you that The Magic Carpet is on promotion at only 99p until the end of May, if you’d like to visit an unfashionable London suburb between early September – 14th October 2016. Bizarrely, it’s currently selling better in Germany than the UK, but those pre-virus, post Brexit referendum days, just after Eid 2016 and still pre-Trump, may now hold a strange kind of charm and they’re still just about contemporary.
Stay well everyone, and alert, although that’s not the word I’d have chosen.
My blogging friend Mary Smith commented last post, re Edna O’Brien’s Girl, on controversy surrounding white authors using the voice of black characters. Girl was so fast paced and compelling I finished it in three sittings. Then, looking it up on Goodreads, I found a question from a member:
Who else thinks a young, black woman would have been a better authorial choice for this topic/concept?
There were three very different answers (plus the point that authors choose topics for their fiction rather than the other way round).
1. If we start to say that only young black women can write about young black women, where does that eventually take us? To more constraints on what women can and can’t do and there’s more than enough of them out there already.
2. I feel uncomfortable with a white woman telling this story and making any profit from it whatsoever.
3. (recommending a non fiction account): Helon Habila may not be a woman, but he is a highly regarded author and poet from Nigeria.
Girl is told from the point of view of one of the 276 schoolgirls abducted from a boarding school in Chibok, Nigeria in April 2014, the best known of many such abductions. To me the novel is less about a black-only experience than one example of what throughout history and all over the world men have done to women in the name of religion, power or both. Regardless of race or age, Edna O’Brien is a woman who, raised in Catholic Ireland, knows all about repression. Maybe this makes her a better “authorial choice” than a Nigerian man who would not experience rape or forced marriage in the same way, menstruate, become pregnant or breastfeed, all significant in the book? But, if we discourage men from imagining such lived experiences, how can we expect them to develop empathy? Maybe O’Brien’s just a different authorial choice. She’s quoted on the British Council Literature website: “Words seemed and still seem an alchemy, and story the true conductor of life, of lives.”
I’m not sure you can open up the world with modern levels of migration and travel, then criticise eagle-eyed writers for using the material they find there. More stories become available. An author can only select one and write about that or the boundaries become too fluid. Even an author of the calibre and experience of O’Brien still needs a manageable story, a heroine, a resolution. She was 84 when the Chibok abductions happened; I do salute the research she did, her energy and will to shine a light on injustice in the way she knew best.
I didn’t find as many African writers on my shelves as I should have.
The example of male violence she chose is by black African men on black African women and children. If words are an alchemy and story does conduct lives, they should be a power anyone can develop. Black female writers are also theoretically free to use any subject matter they like, but they may have less chance of becoming writers in the first place, for educational and financial reasons, health, class, gender restrictions… all this will also vary depending whether they are rural, urban, African, Caribbean or western black women. In 2019 they still have less chance of getting published by a wary, traditionally white industry than Edna O’Brien who was working for the publisher Hutchinson when her first novel, The Country Girls, was commissioned (!) in 1960. (Yes, dream on.) Were white people even having this conversation then, when authors were arguably less familiar with “other” cultures? Anyway after six decades of success no one was going to turn down her newest novel, whether set in Ireland, Nigeria or outer space. Whereas, any quick Google of publishing rates for authors of colour confirms the findings of this Publishing Research Quarterly article:
The narrative that there are just are not enough authors of colour writing is (…) used to explain their lack of inclusion in the publishing industry; however, numerous authors of colour have countered this, saying they have struggled to get agents or, if they do have agents, publishing deals. (…) many authors of colour felt pressured to write identity books (…) that reflected their ethnic or cultural heritage or to draw upon cultural stereotypes—in order to be, or continue being, published. (…). These books often had to cover topics such as “racism, colonialism or postcolonialism as if these were the primary concerns of all BAME people”.
We all struggle to get agents, and if we are unknown as writers and not celebs in any other sphere the agents then struggle to get us published. But this and other research, for example carried out by We Need Diverse Books, confirms the more boxes you tick out of being minority ethnic, disabled, female, working class, unemployed, mentally or physically ill, LGBQT+, non Western, non white… the less likely you are to be published, and the more you are needed by readers.
I need to update my library of black US writers
When, in 1969, man walked on the moon, the boys at school were fascinated. I wasn’t: the protagonists wore boring spacesuits not pretty frocks, and I didn’t understand the physics. As a girl it made less impact on me, while my male contemporaries still remember it in great detail. I wasn’t reflected, didn’t feel I owned it. The closest the career suggestions I got came to astronaut was air hostess. So people of all backgrounds and abilities must appear in books. Everyone needs to be reflected and have ownership, everyone needs the opportunity to learn to write and publish them. The quality of writing is still paramount – you wouldn’t drive across a bridge built by hairdressers in a car designed by a first year apprentice, and equally writing is a craft that needs skill, training, practice and reward. It must say something interesting and say it well. There must be the freedom to write about anything and anyone, to use the “alchemy of words” to conduct anyone’s life or lives, and nobody should get published without redrafting, editing and perfecting. BAME writers should be free of having to write only about BAME people’s primary concerns, but if that’s true it follows that O’Brien too may write about what she likes.
Studies suggest that reading some kinds of fiction makes human beings more compassionate, enabling them to see life through other eyes. We have centuries of opportunity imbalance to correct, but let’s do it by bringing opportunities for diverse writers up to the levels enjoyed by white, cis, heterosexual, able bodied financially resourced middle class writers, not by building barriers to what each group may write about. Not by creating exclusive pockets that only insiders may occupy, but by welcoming everybody’s efforts to write about everybody else, even if some of us have difficulty and even pain recognising what they produce.
For a black author to write of homosexulaity in 1957 was doubly brave
I did worry whether I knew my characters when writing The Magic Carpet and published it in trepidation, opinions having become more forthright since I started it in 2016. Last year an Asian-American YA author withdrew her work from publication following fierce online objections to how it was perceived to depict slavery. The RWA (Romance Writers of America) is embroiled in argument over writing judged racist. So I had grounds for worrying I’d be criticised (fine) or trolled (not fine) for representing characters from backgrounds not my own. Suffice to repeat my characters are fictional, from five different backgrounds which by definition can’t all reflect mine, and were researched with colleagues and friends from those backgrounds as well as other sources. I couldn’t have written about London children otherwise, since in 2016 when the book’s set, the primary school population, depending on area, had between 33-94% ethnic minority* pupils and between 14-75% bilingual or multilingual users. My intention was to respect and celebrate this, but if readers find factual errors I’m open to corrections and ready to discuss how I’ve made my fictional characters think and feel. Whew! *This means not White UK heritage and I’m not happy with the “otherness” of the term.
Zadie Smith brilliantly defended writing in and of different voices in the New York Review of Books in October. Unlike me, she’s of Jamaican/English mixed heritage; like me, she grew up in London. My school friends were Jewish, or of Indian, Turkish, Greek and Black Caribbean heritage; my plumber was born in Pakistan, my solicitor is Greek Cypriot, my doctor Australian, the man who laid my garden turf Moldovan. I have this hinterland to draw on for research which I wouldn’t have if I’d grown up in rural middle England. Does that give me more right to write about multi-ethnic character casts? Or should I have used a sensitivity reader? I may explore that another time.
Let’s hope as more diverse authors get through publishing doors, more points of view will be heard. There are creative writing programmes, scholarships and competitions open to specific age, ethnic and income groups as well as to everybody (good luck scrolling through the enormous list on the links above!) It will take a while for these to redress the balance – the Coretta Scott King Prize had already been going 48 years when the PN article I quote appeared, the Lambda Literary Awards (LGBTQ) started in 1989, the relatively tiny Barbellion Prize (for writing by ill or disabled authors or on that subject) has only just launched. But doors once opened will not close. A young Nigerian undergraduate on the last writing course I attended was writing a fierce, passionate, difficult book set in the Biafran war and the present day. Perhaps her book will be published. Perhaps next year a black woman will win the Booker Prize all to herself.
What to conclude? It’s an inexhaustible topic and I’m exhausted. I think people should be able to talk, read and write about anything and everything, but it must be sensitive and not incite hatred. Subject to that, everyone has the right to write. If they intend to try publishing what they write, they must ensure they’ve researched it thoroughly. However, in a capitalist world we must be realistic. Every good writer has the right to self-publish, and every really good writer whose returns will cover their production costs should have an equal opportunity to be published by a traditional publisher. Some traditional publishers have started efforts to increase the diversity of both their workforce and their authors; it’s well overdue and the world is watching. The right to write is everyone’s; the right to publish should depend on quality alone.
Last December I posted what I’d enjoyed reading in 2018 and kind people have asked for an update. I have three categories for books nowadays – those still to be read, those destined for the charity shop, and those I liked so much they earn a place on my shelves. It’s been a pleasure for this post to look along the rows and find them for you. Most are not recent – if you want to read about flavour of the month books there are always the newspapers and all the wonderful #bookbloggers. But these are what stuck in this reader’s mind.
Storming in at number one for the second year running is Shirley Jackson. I’ve been rationing her so I don’t run out of gems. This year’s favourite is Life Among the Savages. These columns about motherhood, although her children must now be older than I am, still ring true. Here’s part of her second paragraph “I look around sometimes at the paraphernalia of our living – sandwich bags, typewriters, little wheels off things – and marvel at the complexities of civilization with which we surround ourselves (….) I begin throwing things away, and it turns out although we can live agreeably without the little wheels of things, new little wheels turn up almost immediately. This is, I suspect, progress. They can make new little wheels, if not faster than they can fall off things, at least faster than I can throw them away.”
As I was reading this, imagine my uncanny delight when I discovered in the pocket of the old cardigan I was wearing – an unidentifiable little wheel off something! Anyone who’s ever attempted to amuse sick children, schlepped them round a department store or directed household tasks from the labour suite will identify straight away with Jackson. “So unlike the home life of our own dear Queen,” as my mother would say, raising her head from her book for a moment to consider the pile of undarned socks. (At least women don’t darn husbands’ socks anymore.)
Julie Otsuka published The Buddha in the Attic in 2011. It’s the story – completely new to me – of the Japanese “picture brides”, young (and not so young) women chosen and brought to the US by Japanese men between the wars. No groom looked quite as their photo had shown them. This is a story of hardship, disillusionment, making do, humour, cultural displacement, hostility and integration, as poetic as The Grapes of Wrath from a female Japanese point of view. It’s difficult to quote from, for it’s written as though in several voices, themed by arrival, accommodation, agricultural and domestic labour, childbirth, children, the war and so on. My husband is not the man in the photograph. My husband is the man in the photograph but aged by many years. My husband’s handsome best friend is the man in the photograph. My husband is a drunkard. My husband is the manager of the Yamamoto Club and his entire torso is covered with tattoos. My husband is shorter than he claimed to be in his letters, but then again, so am I…We gave birth under oak trees, in summer, in 113 degree heat. We gave birth beside wood stoves in one-room shacks on the coldest nights of the year. We gave birth on windy islands in the Delta, six months after we arrived, and the babies were tiny, and translucent, and after three days they died. We gave birth nine months after we arrived to perfect babies with full heads of black hair.
Also from America, also from 2011, comes Winter Journalby Paul Auster. In the beautifully considered phrases you’d expect from him, he chronicles his life via the buildings and countries he’s lived in, the relationships with parents and women, the illnesses or accidents his body has undergone as well as the joys and sensations, the food he’s eaten, the cars he’s driven, his love for his daughter, the people he’s sat shiva for…. He’s sixty-four at the outset of this journal, and it’s intended as a sort of audit, far less self obsessed and more universal than I’m making it sound. A quote would be another massive paragraph, but whoever you are, if you read it for yourself you’ll find echoes.
One of my favourite British authors is Jon McGregor, and his 2006 So Many Ways to Begin rivals the two above in the quality of the prose and the universality of his description of a long, more or less successful marriage over several decades. There have been problems – mental illness, redundancy, family schisms. There have been successes – homes created, a much loved daughter, love held and exchanged. Life could have been different; it may have been better; the narrator husband is on the whole thankful it wasn’t worse. Why have I left this book in the country? I’d like to be able to quote you every line. (For anyone who couldn’t quite concentrate on the wonderful but dense Reservoir 13, this is a more straightforward narrative, with more plot. But the strength as always is McGregor’s enticing poetic language.)
A running theme here is poetic prose. It’s combined with a riveting turn-the-page plot in Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield. (And at last a book from 2019!) In late 19th century Oxfordshire, a small child is pulled from the river Thames and brought to an inn on its banks. She was dressed in the simplest of shifts that left her arms and ankles bare and the fabric, still damp, lay in ripples around her. The child seems to have drowned. Yet she is not dead. She is healthy, but she doesn’t speak. Who was, or is the child? Who will claim her, who will heal her, and how will the story affect the characters around her, the innkeeper and his family, the farmers and watermen, the pioneer photographer, the self taught nurse and the delinquent son? The only thing I didn’t like in this book, although it accurately reflects attitudes at the time (and today) was the depiction of the river gypsies: it was hard not to read it as racist and it wasn’t justified by the plot. That aside, it’s a great homage to the tradition and language of the best fairy tales (which of course don’t usually give gypsies a good press.) One to save for next time you have a mild cold and need something to nurse it with on the sofa.
My last recommendation is non-fiction, although it is about teasing out the stories we tell ourselves and reframing them for a better ending. In Therapy is transcriptions of conversations, originally on radio, between psychotherapist Susie Orbach and her clients. As she says: Each individual who comes for help craves acceptance, though they may be diffident or even tetchy…I find the particulars of learning how an individual’s internal world works fascinating. This is not so different from creating characters as a writer, only Orbach’s are real. The threads are as compelling as any plot, as some people work towards understanding themselves better and she tries to help others avoid getting even more bogged down than they were when she first met them. It’s not the end of the road, she is able to advise one man, it’s the beginning of something new and possible. Highly readable, whether you agree with her methods or not.
I don’t deserve to live in this company, but in my novels I do try to make my prose as poetic as theirs and sometimes I succeed. If you’re still stuck for Christmas presents, try The Magic Carpet! I can hardly review it myself, but there’s a lovely one here.
Readers of this blog, gentle and otherwise, may remember that I do appreciate distinctive editions that champion forgotten or out of favour books. I went to Persephone books last Tuesday, for a talk about Richmal Crompton. Crompton created William Brown, although she labelled him “a loathsome child” when she realised his fame eclipsed her forty one (yes, 41) novels for adults. Persephone publish one of them, Family Roundabout, and it was this that Dr Sara Lodge from St Andrews University was going to talk about, focussing on women wielding what influence they could in restricted circumstances; on neglected children and on bad writers. I’m glad women are less restricted now even if life still ain’t perfect, and of course I care about neglected children. But what really made my heart leap was the prospect of discussing bad writers. Who hasn’t had fun with the Bad Sex Awards and men writing women? Who can forget the lady novelists who come to live near William and express an anthropological interest in the doings of the Outlaws, or the pompous, detached male and female authors who claim personal hotlines to the souls of their unrealistic child heroes?
The talk was accessible and interesting, but I must admit my attention wandered once I knew the bad writers would feature at the end. My excuse is that the distractions at Persephone are hard to ignore. It’s the prettiest of shops, with framed posters and light wood bookshelves stacked with elegant books in trademark pale grey or with fine art covers (introduction and bookmarks part of the package). There are vases of flowers dotted among the vintage fabrics or in corners warmed by reading lamps. “You’ve just entered the 1940s,” said my friend when I arrived.
The shop was closed for the talk (I think), and crammed in nearly thirty of us on this cold day. “I knew the coats would be good!” someone remarked, examining the audience’s well chosen colours, natural fabrics and print dresses. The embarrassed lady who arrived late was found a place so graciously that I almost wanted to be in her sensible shoes. On the shelves at my elbow, leaving just room for our glasses of wine or fruit juice, were stacks of books by Elizabeth von Armin (my mother’s favourite), Dorothy Whipple, Frances Hodgson Burnett. I discovered Amy Levy, “the Jewish Jane Austen”, recommended by Oscar Wilde. To my great joy there was Noel Streatfield, and having loved A Vicarage Family I was delighted to find a work for adults I hadn’t read. I rediscovered Marghanita Laski – if you have never read Little Boy Lost you have a powerfully poignant treat in store. I remember Laski as a customer when I worked at my father’s bookshop and am so pleased Persephone have brought this and other books of hers back to life.
Half listening and half inspecting the room, it was no time before headmistressy* hands were clapped and we were asked to form a line for lunch (no need to ask this audience to make it an orderly line). And what a lunch! Delicious healthy mixed salads, fresh baguette and good cheese, chocolate pudding, more wine or fruit juice, and tea served in bone china cups with, of course, saucers. I almost wish I sweetened my tea, as I’m sure there must have been sugar tongs.
*A much loved headmistress, I think.
Once we were suitably replete and had digested, Dr Lodge’s talk continued. The pathos of the neglected children who recur in Crompton’s work was explored, the little girls dressed up as accessories to their mothers but not loved, the children whose parents forget their birthdays, the children whose needs and wishes are ignored and who are, occasionally, slapped. Oliver Twist it isn’t, but Crompton does criticise upper middle, middle class and nouveau riche ideas for bringing up children, or indeed leaving it to the servants and forgetting to check. The satire is gentle, but satire there is. Marriages are respectably unhappy, with cruel chinks in the polished face they present to the outside world, which mainly consists of suburbia. Crompton, a spinster, lived in Chislehurst, Kent and there were hints that in a later generation she might have chosen a female partner.
Then came the bad writers – Arnold Palmer from Family Roundabout apparently writes “tripe with a revolting veneer of literary virtuosity”. I can’t wait to learn more of him when I read my new copy properly instead of skimming it for quotes to give this blog post a veneer of authenticity. And finally questions, thanks to Sara (“So interesting! And not too academic!”) and a chance to browse and chat.
Persephone are interested in suggestions for forgotten authors they might republish (not only fiction). I see they already do one Ruth Adam but would love to see I’m Not Complaining reissued, and a book much loved by my mother and my 1970s self, glimmers to me from the past. This was Life with Lisa (1958) and a companion Leave it to Lisa, by Sybil Burr. I wish I still had them. They were Young Adult when teenagers had barely been invented.
What a discovery! If you’re in London, do visit, and if not they have an online catalogue of lovely ideas – they will post you a gift wrapped book a month, for example. I’d like to thank friends Gill and Sheila for inviting me along, Persephone books for their hospitality, their imagination, and giving me the chance to use the word “spinster”. And advance thanks too: as a poor selling but well reviewed lady author I’m hoping that in seventy years Persephone books of the future will rescue my own Magic Carpet and Infinity Pool, dress them in a grey jacket and make me a vintage star.
Tidying up last week, I came across this initial sketch for the road The Magic Carpet families live in, made when I realised I wasn’t describing their comings and goings consistently. I may have had early thoughts of including it with the book – I’m a sucker for any book that has a plan or a map at the front, such as the Cluedo style plans used by Agatha Christie. A Book Riot post here has more great examples.
I recently read two contemporary books with house plans for endpapers. It’s a dangerous device as they do suggest extra riches within – Lucy Hughes-Hallet’s Peculiar Ground lived up to the promise with panache as reader and writer explored the grounds of her stately home setting together, but for me bestseller The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastledidn’t work for several reasons, one being that the map didn’t match the story.
Joanna Cannon, in The Trouble with Goats and Sheepand Fredrik Blackman inA Man called Ovewrite their residential street settings so clearly that my mental picture tricked me into remembering plans that aren’t actually provided – I had to check my copies before I realised. I don’t think Richmal Crompton’s William Brown books provided one either, but fifty years after first reading them I could guide you round William’s village to his house, his long suffering school, the Bott’s nouveau riche manor house, and the various cottages where the Outlaws and assorted bespectacled men and tall lady writers lived. My mental navigation skills had first been stimulated by Joyce Lankester Brisley, author of Milly-Molly-Mandy, who does provide a map of M-M-M’s village and by the maps in my Pooh Bear books of the Hundred Acre Wood. Copyright won’t let me reproduce them here but you can see them on the Look Inside pages on Amazon.
A house, a small village, a cul-de-sac – these are all excellent settings because the writer can keep them closed to trap the characters inside while their story unfolds, or open them up partly or in full to admit strangers, dangers or resolution. With only one way in or out (or a sinister back way known only to locals, as in Cannon or Helen Kitson’s The Last Words of Madeleine Anderson) the writer can control character movements as a good general would deploy troops. A fan of early Brookside, I was particularly attracted to a cul-de-sac – a French word but the French don’t use it. They say “impasse” instead, which is much less helpful for plot purposes. Real British cul-de-sacs tend to be designed for and house a more homogeneous demographic than Brookside’s – but in London the monstrous permutations of the property, rental and social housing market lead to all sorts of cheek by jowl variety and make life much more interesting.
Five narrators, aged seven to sixty
So I set The Magic Carpet in a cul-de-sac, with a mix of family structures, incomes and backgrounds, and initially just the school their children attended to unite them. In my childhood, we’d have played outside in such a street. I hoped my characters might grow into that. My initial layout didn’t last: I changed the road name, moved some families and evicted others, swapped addresses, added some posh flats, divided some houses into maisonettes and extended others. I got rid of the central block and paved over most front gardens, with only a posse of gnomes resisting on one of the last remaining lawns. I turned the luxury flats and the poorest house (council tenanted via a private landlord) to face the main road and the dangerous world outside. With no planning permission required, it was quick and easy. Unfortunately all my new maps turned out like phalluses; if you imagine the (deleted) outline of the close you’ll see what I mean. So with no budget for a pro to resolve that particular embarrassment, I didn’t include it in the book. But you people who read my blog are special, so here’s my amateur effort: an additional reading aid just for you.
I started jotting down ideas for The Magic Carpet during my last few years of teaching. After retirement, it became therapy, to get teaching out of my system – the lessons I’d learnt, the people I’d met, the “all human life is there” reality of any school community. It threatened to be heavy going for its future readers, as it turned into a teacher’s sour rant against the government.
Fortunately, the words of a wise headteacher came to mind: “Jessica, always remember the only people with an unarguable right to be in this school are the children. Not the head, the staff or the caretaker, not the parents – just the children.” She was right, so I decided to tell my story – of diversity and language, of education gone wrong and going right, of friendships, tiffs and damaged and happy families surviving, imploding or just plodding on in an increasingly intolerant London – through the eyes of the children.
The Magic Carpet starts in September with a new Year Three class (pupils between seven and eight years old). I’ve worked with learners from three to adult in my career, but my most recent classes were Year 2 up to July, the very same age group. I wasn’t just familiar with the voice, I’d been surrounded by thirty examples of it daily. Up shot several imaginary hands: “Miss! Choose me!” I imagined thirty children, sitting cross-legged on an imaginary carpet in front of me as I took an imaginary register. “I can only choose – let me see – five at most,” I said. The hands stretched higher; the pleading volunteer groans got louder: “Me! No, choose me! I’ll be really good!”
My story involves the relationship between home and school. I was looking for a quiet, perceptive, articulate narrator, who’d know when to stand back and observe and when to express their feelings. Alka and Nathan, a girl and a boy, fitted the bill. Then someone a bit clumsy to add humour, like in a pantomime. That was Sky. As I wrote this self-centred child I softened towards her; she had her own problems. Remember the class excitement when a new pupil arrived? I’d introduce Xoriyo. She’d see what was really going on and be an agent for change. Finally, I chose Mandeep, for likeability. Teachers shouldn’t have favourites but in retirement with a fictional class, you can do as you like.
Now I found a new problem. I’d describe something, then realise even the brightest Year Three child wouldn’t know that concept or vocabulary. Nathan’s father goes online dating, but Nathan would hardly be tagging along, reporting back. Sky’s mother, despite her self-doubt, is a good mother, and would hide her mild depression from Sky. Several elements of my story took place after the children’s bedtimes, or in areas of experience they wouldn’t yet have. But after I’d simplified the language and ideas to account for all that, the voices of Alka, Nathan, Sky, Xoriyo and Mandeep sounded indistinguishable.
A more sensible writer would therefore concentrate on one child narrator, as in Stephen Kelman’s brilliant Pigeon English or Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. But I wanted to reflect the variety of personalities, backgrounds, and abilities in a typical class. When I’d nearly finished The Magic Carpet, Guy Gunaratne published In Our Mad and Furious City, also juggling five diverse points of view. He does it very well, but his youngest narrator is already a streetwise teenager, out and about by himself. If my seven-year-olds did that, they’d come to the attention of social services – or not – and I’d be back to ranting.
The narrator in this brilliant novel loosely based on the story of Damilola Taylor is aged 11…narrator aged 11
Five narrators, teenagers to pensioners
A famous teenage narrator
Five narrators, aged seven to sixty
Mid dilemma, the children took over again. Xoriyo opted for a silent protest – a period of selective mutism, not uncommon when a child wants to stay in control of things. Mandeep ran off to play football; Nathan was absorbed in computer games and Sky was moody. That left Alka, a beautiful, bright, shy child who is bewildered and distressed when her secure world is turned upside down by an incident at home. With just one child voice, it became simpler. If she doesn’t know the name of something, I make an adult tell her – “Mum says that plant’s a buddleia.” If she overhears part of a phone conversation, she interprets what she hears literally. She tries to make sense of events in her life by drawing parallels with fairy stories, as all children do (which is why traditional stories remain universally popular). She thinks of law enforcement in terms of school rules. Parents keep her quiet by telling her off or other children bully her or once literally gag her. Once, she tries screaming to get her way. Sometimes she thinks problems through to terrifying logical conclusions because her seven-year-old self can’t get them in proportion.
With Alka in place, four adult narrators flocked to stand guard. Sky’s mother, downbeat but dogged; Nathan’s father, gradually remembering the power of the imagination; Xoriyo’s mother, speaking on her daughter’s behalf for as long as necessary, and Mandeep’s grandmother who has never lost her original childish joy. I hope you enjoy meeting them all in The Magic Carpet – as one Amazon review says: “It is a lovely novel and will resonate with all parents and teachers. Recommended.”
This is NOT going to turn into a blog about my health. There’s nothing wrong with bloggers charting their health; many are very brave and interesting people and when you have mental or physical health issues you have to get through them however works best for you. But this is my books and writing blog!
That said, last week I had very kind responses with requests for an update, so here goes. And you never know, an occasional diary of glaucomatous events may help with notes for novel four. (“Don’t forget me!” squeaks novel three.)
I have nothing but praise for the skill and kindness of the medics and nurses at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London. It’s early days and I’m finding in a strange way that I’m much more preoccupied with the day to day unrolling of the treatment than with whether the eventual desirable outcome is reached (which is to retain and protect my remaining right eye vision before it goes the way of the rest).
First Dr K answered a simple question I could have asked weeks ago but didn’t dare. Turns out a “bleb” isn’t a bit of medical equipment/foreign body/object/weird plastic thing the size of a Macdonalds toy as I’d assumed. It’s a drainage flap cut directly in me. Curiously, when he explained this he was so matter of fact about it I didn’t mind at all.
Go figure – Dr K (I’d name him in dispatches but will ask his permission at the next appointment) cut and stitched the inside of my eyelid. He had no computer guide or laser tech magic; he did it by hand. At follow up appointments he adjusts the stitches by pressing/pushing lightly on the eyelid, to alter the pressure of fluid on the eye, much as you’d adjust gathers in a curtain. I had a general anaesthetic but since that wore off I have felt no pain and minimal intrusion from the stitches.
If you’re looking for a quiet relaxing thing to do in the frenetic City of London on a midweek afternoon, you can’t beat a well judged general anaesthetic. Sure, I was a bit hungry after fasting since 7am, so while waiting to go in I’d described all the things I’d like to eat. Anticipating a post GA sore throat, I conjured up smoothies, yoghurt, jelly, juice. I asked for dried apricots and prunes – lying around all day might slow things down. I’d satisfy my energy needs with pasta salad with mozzarella, take sundried tomatoes and dark green leaves for iron, and a flapjack or cereal bar just in case. Plus grapes because after all I was a patient. I was just passing the time but in the hotel room that night I found: a bright orange smoothie and one called Blue Machine, honey yoghurt, mandarin jelly with fruit slices, apple juice, dried apricots, prunes, pasta salad with pine nuts, more pasta salad with roasted vegetables, olives, sundried tomatoes with mozzarella balls, rocket and watercress, strawberries, grapes, an oat flapjack, a cereal bar, and some camomile tea. As it turned out the anaesthetist’s skill had avoided a sore throat and I was more sleepy than hungry. Fortunately B always has an appetite, and we hope the cleaners enjoyed the things we left in the morning when we couldn’t manage them after the hotel breakfast.
The operated eye is bloodshot at levels Boris Karloff would envy, which offsets my blue irises brighter than any coloured contact lens. My glasses prescription no longer fits and I find glare difficult. A kind friend who gives a lot of parties brought round all the sunglasses people left in his house and didn’t collect, which helps, although it further complicates the issue of whether anyone has seen my glasses. I have a plastic eye shield to wear in bed in case I scratch the wound, and over the next three months over 600 doses of eyedrop, antibiotic or anti inflammatory to take. Have filled the prescriptions asap (did you hear about Brexit and the medicine shortages?)
But it’s only a week later, and I can now read several pages without tiring (Shirley Jackson, must tell you about her another time). I can report that the general anaesthetic did wonders for my back! Today is the first day back at the computer without discomfort which is just as well as I have six posts to write, for a Magic Carpetblog tour and some other commitments I made. The cure for any sad carpet is a good airing, aka publicity. The Magic Carpet is earthbound after its initial flurry. If it had sails, I’d say the wind was out of them, despite recent puffs from some excellent reviews for which I’m very grateful. So friends – if you’re nearby please visit (I’m still a bit wary of outings that might get dust and pollution in my eye). And if you can do anything to help The Magic Carpet weave its way further up the contemporary fiction charts at Amazon, I’d appreciate it as much as any bunch of grapes.
I searched Amazon for The Magic Carpet. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a… small carpet, according to Amazon. It’s only available in purple and averages 4* reviews. One says: “It does move, that’s the only downside I’ve found so far.” Most people love it.
The phrase appears too in the title of a book about coaching sports superstars, which until today shared with mine the distinction (?) of not yet having any reviews on Amazon.co.uk. It looks really interesting though! Sending full supportive wishes to my fellow author over in the US, where he is well reviewed. Update: the day after uploading this blog post, I left the review starting blocks so maybe he will too.
A magic carpet is also a battery powered ‘shimmer and shine’ toy which despite mostly rave reviews, someone says was “the worst toy we bought this Christmas”… (“the dolls themselves are fine but the shoes come off too easily” – er, maybe they’ve been told not to get mud on the, you know, carpet?) The carpet, which “magically flutters” (nifty use of wheels there) “responds to being tilted with over 40 sounds and fun phrases.” Must find a three year old to buy one for.
It’s a tarpaulin, which is “100% waterproof” and has “4 corner attachment points”. I’m liking this product best so far. It sounds so practical. But not really magic.…a carpet shampoo… nah. Life’s too short for shampooing carpets, but each to their own. One customer gives it 5* so she (my sexist guess) must have been blown away.
…a children’s colouring in kit but I bet adults can have a go too. Colouring in is so last year, but they’ve added simple sewing to help you relive another forgotten childhood activity.
It’s all those things and more but The Magic Carpet is also MY SECOND NOVEL! Apologies for shouting but I need to get this piece of contemporary fiction off the ground. If you add my name to your search, or just search in “Books” you’ll avoid all the carpets let alone cleaning them, and no one will make you play with anything unless you want to. You can choose the enchanted ebook or the bewitching book (paperback). Then you can drift away, until, coming down to earth with a bump, you write a spellbound review so the one I have already doesn’t feel lonely.
Does that sound like a deal? Amazon won’t accept reviews from known connections of the author, so I need more random readers to make their voices heard or my book will never rise through the section rankings to the magical top 100. Thank you! Now we can all live happily ever after… Good luck to all those other products too and hope you appreciated the shout out.
Publication day has arrived – 22nd July – forThe Magic Carpet. The ebook is £2.99 and the paperback is £9.99 and they are both available here. I’ve said a lot about the book in previousposts already, and if anyone asks I’ll write some reading group questions too.
So why am I feeling diffident? I should be saying: Roll up! Roll up! Your lives will be incomplete if you don’t read this wonderful book! Quit your jobs now, stop packing those holiday cases, stop pulling those weeds, forget the shopping and READ IT! I should be PASSIONATE (a word the book trade uses a lot).
Not my style. Marketing is the hardest part of book writing (say I and a thousand other writers: there’s nothing original about that sentence). The whole genre thing rears its Hydra heads again – see Anne Pettigrew‘s blog for a heartfelt take on this. Assuming I can get past that, there’s my own hmm... misgivings about my own book. And yet… The writing’s good. The content’s interesting and hopefully touching. The subject matter is universal, to any parent, carer, grandparent, teacher, child or adult who was ever a school pupil. It’s written “from the heart” (via the keyboard, obvs). The second half is quite dynamic and eventful, so it’s worth persevering through the first half. Actually come to think of it there’s a dynamic event in the first half too. It depends what you mean by dynamic really…oh ffs…Jennie Rawlings‘ cover’s wonderful!!!I write this to the smell of smoke. A nearby shopping mall is on fire, including the nearest Waterstones. No point visiting them to see if they’ll take some copies today. I hope everyone’s okay and think, poor Walthamstow, they’ve got so many building projects already and now this. But it’s the first London Borough of Culture and the spirited community will probably rise phoenix like and more vivid than ever.
I digress. Such a local disaster rightly puts my own doubts into perspective. (At one point I got so down on myself this whole publication announcement post turned into a long justification for why I’m publishing on Amazon, for the second time. But I’ll save that for another post. Hooray – a post in hand for a lazy blogger.)
As you see, if you’re still with me, my marketing skills are crap. I’ll keep things simple. Please buy it, see what you think, tell others and review it especially if what you think is complimentary. But also if it isn’t – we authors love to learn, albeit through gritted teeth. Story of our lives.