Striking the right note…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

jigsaw (2)

©Jessica Norrie 2020

 

Giveaway!

I’m sorry I haven’t been around since the end of January – I had another glaucoma operation in February and am limiting screen time. I don’t usually post mid-week either, but just wanted to make sure people who follow my blog know there’s a Magic Carpet giveaway on my Facebook author page. I posted it to celebrate International Women’s Day, because if you’re looking for strong women of many generations and ethnicities, Magic Carpet land is the place to go. It’s open until midnight UK time on Friday 13th (lucky for one). This is a UK only giveaway because of the cost of author copies and postage – SORRY – and you do have to comment under the pinned post on my author page to enter the draw. Then I’ll message the winner on Facebook to get their postal details.


In other news I am gearing up for a couple of blog posts – one reviewing all those books I was given to read in 2020, that fortunately my eye op hasn’t stopped me reading, and one exploring the very different outcomes so far for The Magic Carpet (better novel, better edited, better written) and The Infinity Pool (pretty good for a debut but now I itch to take it down and tighten it up). And yet which one got two Amazon number ones? Which one funded a bloody good holiday, some treats for home and family and made the accountant believe me when I said was now a writer? Currently the mighty, who perhaps had unrealistic expectations of the second novel after the success of the first, are slightly crestfallen. So please do enter that giveaway, or read The Magic Carpet on KU, or if you don’t win the giveaway either message me for a mobi file to review or even treat yourself, and let me know what you think. If reviews and sales suddenly zoom, I’ll write a far more celebratory blog post and get back my mojo to tackle the edits for novel three!

© Jessica Norrie 2020

The right to write

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.

46195759Girl 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.

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.

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.

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. 3711Unlike 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.

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Evaristo shared her Booker prize with Margaret Atwood.

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.

© Jessica Norrie 2020

To Be Read in Twenty Twenty

Sometimes I feel I don’t plan my writing career seriously enough. Although Novel 3 has gone to the agent, Novel 4 doesn’t exist yet, even as an idea, a germ of an idea or anything less tangible than that. An email from a list I should have unsubscribed from popped up today with details of a free short story competition and I thought I’d try a quick story based on an amusing episode over Christmas. There’s a 2000 word limit but who says you have to make it that long? I wrote the amusing episode down and filled it out a bit. I was only on 200 words and the amusing episode had been milked for all it was worth, plus I was having qualms about making hay from people who’d shown me nothing but goodwill. Short stories are hard to get right and one reason is wrongly viewing them as something you can dash off in answer to random competitions in an inbox. So sod the short stories (again). I was given several books for Christmas and my just-before-it birthday and if I read enough of other people’s writing craft perhaps I’ll be guided towards the place where Novel 4 lies in wait.

TBR 2020 2

Of these nine books, I’d asked for five. I’ve already finished one, although I read it as slowly and with as much care as I could. Elizabeth Strout is one of my favourite authors. There’s a slow cooking and slow eating movement, and there are mindfulness and internet-free days and reading Elizabeth Strout comes into a similar category, ideal for the limbo time between Christmas and New Year, probably less suited to commuting. She observes ordinary people in an ordinary place doing pretty ordinary things and she makes them extraordinary and universal. Olive, Again is an older Olive Kitteridge, which I’m now rereading to remind myself of her back story and those of other residents of Crosby, Maine. Olive is now on and beyond a second 43820277._sy475_marriage. She has mellowed but her go-to judgement is still “phooey to you”. She’s kept her marbles (which she dreads losing) and she’s keeping her temper better than she was. The endearing, human thing about Olive and those around her is that they’re all still learning how to live and they know it. They’re by no means perfect and neither are their partners and at times they’re deeply intolerant of each other. Olive’s son, Christopher, is horrid to her and this may or may not be because she was a bad mother. Fortunately moments of humour and love redeem all this and Olive has a wonderful capacity for compassion and understanding when you’d least expect it. But even the meanest Strout character has the capacity to recognise their mistakes and try co-existing more helpfully. “It came to him then that it should never be taken lightly, the essential loneliness of people, that the choices they made to keep themselves from that gaping darkness were choices that required respect.”

I also asked for A Single Thread, by Tracy Chevalier. If this is half as good as Girl with a Pearl Earring or The Lady and the Unicorn I’m in for a treat. I shall save it for after my next eye operation in mid February because in the lovely hardback edition the font is a generous size. I’m not sure whether to read Joanna Cannon‘s Breaking and Mending account of life as an NHS junior doctor before or after that – the care I’ve had from the overworked but always patient, expert, and caring staff at Moorfields Hospital has been excellent and although I asked for Cannon’s book it may not give me the sweetest of dreams as I trust myself to their care again. Another request was Edna O’Brien’s Girl, a fictionalised account of the experiences of the Nigerian girls abducted by Boko Haram. I found her last book, The Little Red Chairs, almost impossible to read because what it described was so awful. But I can’t fail to respect an author who at nearly 90 years of age is still confronting injustice and violence against women with such uncompromising bravery, and who still crafts every word with such angry care. On a lighter note, I wanted The Binding by Bridget Collins because I’m a sucker for that sort of cover – I call them Paisley covers and there have been a spate of them recently. (It doesn’t look as though the contents are very light-hearted though, and reader opinion appears divided.) My partner coupled it with Jessie Burton’s newest novel The Confession, which I’m hoping will be as good as her first and better than her second. Another lovely cover anyway!

My ex husband and I still give each other books every Christmas and birthday. He’s a Harper Lee fan, and rightly guessed I wouldn’t yet have got around to Go Set a Watchman. (When my first novel came out it briefly whizzed past this in the Australian bestseller lists, a moment of author glory you must forgive me for harpering on about as there haven’t been many more.) He also gave me The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer, which has a plug on the back from Rose Tremain. Well, if it’s good enough for her…

And finally who wouldn’t want a David Nicholls Sweet Sorrow to look forward to? Bittersweet, poignant, coming of age… it sounds as though it will be much like the others but they’re all so well written and delivered. It will, I hope, be a comfort akin to watching afternoon TV when I was kept home from school as a child with a cold.

Finally, I’ve been an increasingly laid back gardener since reading Richard Mabey’s Weeds last spring. Knowing this, my partner found Wonderful Weeds by Madeline Harley. Next year we’ll (mabey) eat nettle soup and make nettle linctus for the compost, nurture the last remaining bees on dandelion nectar and feast on foraged forest fruits.

TBR 2020 weeds

So what with operations and all the reading and stewing nettles, Novel 4 may not be along for a while. Phooey to that, as Olive Kitteridge would say.

©Jessica Norrie 2020

 

A Post about Persephone

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.Persephone 5

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.

©Jessica Norrie 2019

 

Three Brits and an American – my 2018 book choices.

Oddly I wasn’t asked by the Guardian, the Observer etc to review my books of the year. I’ll ignore the snub and proceed anyway.

My runaway favourite was Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. It’s a short novel, probably a novella. But Moss packs in enough themes, informations, emotions and landscape for her book to resonate way beyond the time it takes to read. As a reader with a dreadful tendency to 38922230skim, I was forced to concentrate on every word, lest I miss something important, or beautiful, or poignant, or funny, or all of those. Silvie is the teenage daughter of an obsessive amateur historian. She and her long suffering mother accompany him to enactments of Ancient British life, along with a gullible, irresponsible professor and his wiser students. The violence in their way of life builds among the flora (is it poisonous?) and fauna (can they trap or spear it?) of the Northumbrian landscape. The writing is poetic – the stream was…still the colour of whisky in a bottle, murmuring over the stones – but Moss pulls no punches; her instructions on how to skin a rabbit nearly turned me vegetarian. You sense that she shares the horrible father’s fascination with living another culture, and her research is convincing. This isn’t just atmosphere though – there’s a strong and menacing contemporary story that mirrors the ancient ones, and you won’t be able to put it down.

35212538I was intrigued to see a novel with five interweaving narrators from different ethnicities in contemporary London get long listed for the Man Booker Prize. This year, my own Magic Carpet was rejected by more than one publisher because, er, five interweaving narrators from different ethnicities in contemporary London could be confusing. Checking out the opposition, I found Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City is fantastic. Where my characters have houses in a run down suburb, his live on an estate (except the family who’s “made it”). At first the snob in me didn’t want to read the idiom I hear on the bus every day, but I was so quickly drawn into the story of these characters that I began to empathise with them and enjoy the style. Gunaratne gets four of the contrasting voices, so far as I can tell, perfectly – they could be on any bus I take. The only one that works less well for me is the middle aged Irish woman. But the interrelated stories of the fatherless young Muslim boy, the black fitness fanatic and his disabled Montserrat born father, and the weedy British Asian rapper had me hooked, their hopes snuffed out relentlessly but always resurgent against a background of unfolding tensions and injustice. “Dust of an old order mixing up with the sweat of the new. All I do-tho is head down and go beast-mode when I can. Mission to get out these Ends is enough.” I closed the book rooting for them, hoping that against the odds, one of them would have their gifts and strengths recognised.

37805364Those were the standout two for me from 2018, but honourable mention goes to a favourite author, Andrew Miller, for Now We Shall Be Entirely Free. A deserting soldier is pursued by a member of his regiment from Spain via Bristol to the Highlands and Islands during the Napoleonic wars, giving rise to urban and country settings, seascapes and capitals and early pioneering hospitals (anything medical is a strength of Miller’s). Characters reflect the position of women, the orphaned and the destitute, and even the worst embody at least some kindness alongside the cruelty, show at least some fellowship amid the isolation. There’s a love story and a war story: Miller is always good for a readable yarn with serious resonances and fascinating historical research. It would be a perfect book if, ultimately, it wasn’t just a shade too improbable.

17349743Finally, here’s a writer who died in 1965 but she’s my rediscovery of the year so I’m claiming her for 2018. Shirley Jackson’s The Sundial is a hilarious horror story of a family trapped in a cult of their own making, dysfunctioning away in their ridiculous nouveau riche ancestral home with all the neurosis, snobbery and fancy dress you could want. There’s a funeral, lots of gin, a garden party and a doll’s house and a hidden apartment and several seances and the servants must be sent away in case they see and tell too much…Hooray! There are more Shirley Jackson books I haven’t read – I just wrapped one up for a friend and unwrapped it again because I can’t bear to let it go before reading it.

The blog is going to be intermittent from now on. I’m finding the glare of the screen difficult; it’s a side effect of treatment for an eye condition. So I’m going to try and concentrate on novel number three instead and keep away from the keyboard otherwise. I’ve loved blogging and I want to thank all those who’ve read and commented over the past few years. I’ll certainly be back if novels number two and three (when finished)  get a publisher, or if I suddenly have something I want to say. In the meantime, have a lovely Christmas and why not curl up with one of the above books – I promise you won’t be disappointed.

© Jessica Norrie 2018

 

Fortune favours the brave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hear, hear!

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

© Jessica Norrie 2018; Answers ©Jennie Ensor 2018

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


	

Haunted by the Woman in White

I’ve just finished watching this cracker of a BBC adaptation – it’s not too late for catch up if you want to binge watch from the safety of the sofa.

WWhite1I first encountered Wilkie Collins when my family sat glued to a BBC adaptation of The Moonstone (another came in 2016). TV companies, desperate to repeat the success of The Forsyte Saga, had found a contender. They rolled him out again with The Woman in White  in 1982. I read my parents’ old Everyman edition, which I’m rereading now. At university, Collins figured in lectures on Dickens, Balzac and Henry James, but The Moonstone is now more usually regarded as the first full length crime novel. The Woman in White has no detective as such and even the BBC’s enquiring “scrivener” Emmanuel Nash doesn’t appear in the book, but it too involves solving crimes and elucidating mysteries.

Collins works well on TV, with its tried and tested pot boiler ingredients, as effective now as in the days of steam trains and port for gentlemen in the library. Candle lit interiors of red velvet and brocade film well, and The Woman in White has not one but two isolated stately homes – Limmeridge – bright, airy, a short walk from the sea, and Blackwater, closed in around a courtyard, with neglected ancient wings and a stagnant murky lake, “just the place for a murder” as Sir Percival Glyde asserts. The word “dastardly” was made for Glyde, although it must be said that his birth is the source of all his wrongdoing and 21st century readers may glimpse sympathy from Collins for a flaw that, nowadays, isn’t one.

Collins’ characters are rounded, with varying motives, vacillations, points when their  choices blur. As Walter Hartright, the artist turned amateur detective, says: “the best men are not consistent in good- why should the worst men be consistent in evil?” Walter is young, open hearted, romantic, generous – but also indecisive, naive and impulsive. The otherwise admirable Marion makes a crucial mistake in banishing him before Laura’s marriage. Foul Mrs Catherick, to a less moralising era, seems unpleasant rather than cruel, shipwrecked by unwanted pregnancy.  Housekeepers and valets are not just goodies or baddies, but confused, conflicted, put upon characters whose economic dependence gives them little space for manoeuvre, compassionately observed by Collins. Most servants are trustworthy, whereas aristocrats Count and Countess Fosco and Philip and Frederick Fairlie behave unforgivably and social values help them get away with it. Fosco was more elegant on screen than in the book, where his white mice, his “low, oily smile”, his age and obesity make him less appealing. The BBC emphasized the sexual frisson between him and active, intelligent Marion Halcombe which the acting was good enough to make convincing, but it’s less reciprocated by Marion in the book. Fosco’s admiration for Marion, and his expressed sympathy for his own wife, forced to “love, honour and obey” him while watching his infatuation, redeem him slightly.

 

Mothers in The Woman in White are either dead or betray their daughters – Hartright’s mother, though, is steadfast and sensible. He’s the poor but honest artist, in love with fey piano playing Laura Fairlie, whose doppelganger is a madwoman escaped from yet another isolated building, a “private asylum” (and is she really mad?). To complete the gothic picture there are inheritances, sinister marriages, debt, alcoholism, a powder that sends tea drinkers to sleep, a tumbledown boathouse, lodgings in a London slum, anonymous letters, a locked church in a near abandoned village, a graveyard, jewelled keepsakes…At Limmeridge dresses swish, and Hartright observes women’s bodies moving in freedom: “…her waist, perfection in the eyes of a man, for it occupied its natural place, it filled out its natural circle, it was visibly and delightfully undeformed by stays.” But at Blackwater corsets are laced ever tighter, and I lost count of the rooms Laura, Anne, Marion, Fanny and possibly others were locked away in. In the end locks and keys turn against at least one gaoler though, because this is a novel of justice and reparation.

Collins, states my edition’s 1963 introduction, “was a radical feminist”. Possibly not quite one we’d recognise, since his female characters miss no opportunity to denigrate their own sex. Marion, is energetic, intelligent, graceful and ugly, and in her first speech of introduction she blames her own  stupid behaviour/attitudes/beliefs on being a woman at least six times, adding “no woman does think much of her own sex, though few of them confess it as freely as I do.” However, the broader premise on which the book is based unambiguously protests against the lack of opportunities and legal status of women and wives in Collins’ day. All Laura’s assets will be signed over when she marries Sir Percival, the family solicitors objections waved aside, although it puts her husband in a position to benefit more from her death than her life. Her father chose the husband for her, and the BBC version gave Mrs Catherick lines similar to “To men like that, character and reputation mean more than anyone’s feelings or well being” although I couldn’t find them in the book. Collins highlights how women were subjected to coercion, violence and emotional abuse, how men fathered children and walked away, how easy it was to portray women as mad or unreliable, and how the a gentleman’s word carried more weight than someone of lower social standing. The legal position regarding the property of married women may have changed (although as late as the 1970s Carmen Callil remembers the header on her tax return: “If you have a husband, this form is addressed to him.”) but, sadly, the other types of abuse are as familiar as they were when The Woman in White was published in 1859.

WWhite4
Marion (Jessie Buckley) and Laura (Olivia Vinall) in the BBC’s The Woman in White

Skimming the book again, I’ve the impression of a faithful adaptation, with some aspects emphasised as they couldn’t be in Collins’ time. His discussion of dreams, memory loss, post traumatic stress prefigured Freud by forty years and give the BBC cast some wonderful acting opportunities. The emphasis on dependency is there, and also the hints of lesbianism and erotica. Says Marian: “The simple illusions of her girlhood are gone, and my hand has stripped them off. Better mine than his – that is all my consolation – better mine than his.” Marian and Laura, who are half sisters through their mother, frequently share a bed. They touch, stroke and caress; their language about each other is romantic. The BBC even has Marion wearing wide legged trousers. In Anne Catherick’s case, there’s confusion between her mental health and learning difficulties, as in the book. There’s clear economic delineation. We know who is wealthy, who only appears so, who can aspire to be self sufficient, who is respectable and who is precariously surviving, down to the last sextons too debilitated to tend the graves in their charge. And here are public institutions: impoverished half derelict churches whose small congregations graffitti their doors, free village schools for urchins as opposed to foreign boarding schools for aristocrats. (Not a huge amount changed there, then either.)

 

Many characters and devices in The Woman in White were based on a real case, the Douhault conspiracy in France. Anyone interested in Victorians solving real life crime, and the influence this had on fiction, should read Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher”. Another contemporary writer with a debt to Collins is Philip Pullman in his Sally Lockhart series – if you’re looking for a strong female lead with full Victorian trimmings, you can’t do better. Meanwhile, if this was your teenage children’s introduction to The Woman in White, do reassure them there’ll probably be another one along in a couple of decades. She’s one literary ghost who will never fade away.

©Jessica Norrie 2018

A funny thing happened on the way to the story

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

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

storytelling 2

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

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

 

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

The extremely daring Compère…introduced the show as follows:

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

storytelling 1

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

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

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

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

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

Learning to write with Lucy Barton

In 2015 a creative writing tutor told me: “Publishers don’t want books about writing and writers; readers don’t want to read them.” In 2016, along came My Name is Lucy Barton,  longlisted for the Man Booker prize.

Elizabeth Strout, a stylish and moving author, can elucidate in few words what others take lifetimes to understand. Lucy Barton themes include motherhood, memory, childhood, abuse, small town life and much else, but for this post I’ll concentrate on writing.

Lucy becomes a successful writer after escaping poverty and ostracism. She writes what she cannot say. “…books brought me things…they made me feel less alone…I thought, I will write and people will not feel so alone!” A major influence on Lucy is another fictional  author, Sarah Payne, whose writing advice is a generous gift from Strout to writers everywhere. 27875970Self deprecating Sarah: ” ‘I’m just a writer…Oh you know, books, fiction, things like that, it doesn’t matter, really.’ ” When people are kind to her and she can be kind back, she relaxes. Otherwise, she’s nervous and tired (though beautifully groomed). Yet she lectures on the professional author treadmill, a mouthpiece for valuable guidance.

At one lecture, Sarah defines the job of a fiction writer. “To report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do.” She mentions readers who have threatened her for the views of characters she’s written, and she’s emphatic that her job “is not to make readers know what is a narrative voice and not the private view of the author.” This strikes me as more an American problem than a UK one. Here, we tend to say: if you don’t like what a character or a world represents, just don’t read it, and anyway, it’s fiction. But I wonder whether the passage, ironically, comes from experiences Strout has had herself as a writer. The idea of attacking a writer for a character’s views clearly angers her: as Sarah says, “Never ever defend your work.”

25893709Sarah aims for compassion: “There was something decent in the way the friend and Sarah treated this man who was in pain…” After a student aims a cruel comment at her, “Sarah talked a lot to the class about judging people, and about coming to the page without judgement…” “…you never know, and never would know, what it would be like to understand another person fully.”

“…we all love imperfectly. But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: you’re not doing it right.”  Sarah says: “If there is a weakness in your story, address it head-on, take it in your teeth and address it, before the reader really knows. This is where you will get your authority.” Lucy admires that: “I like writers who try to tell you something truthful”. It’s good counsel, but perhaps Sarah can’t – or won’t – always follow it herself. A male friend calls Sarah a good writer, but with ” ‘softness of compassion’ that ruins her work” and Lucy too feels “she was not telling exactly the truth, she was always staying away from something.” In fact it’s what Strout’s characters do again and again, circling the unnameable. Paradoxically, it’s a more evocative way of writing than a clear description would be. (When I blogged Behind the words, between the lines on writing silence, I had not yet read Strout, or there she would be.)

As a writer who struggles with plot, I was relieved by Sarah’s dictum: “You will have only one story. You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.” Even if she’s only a fictional voice, I so want to believe she’s right! Lucy also appears in Anything is Possible (2017) and I’d be happy to hearing more and more of her her one story, from various angles.

Finally, “Sarah Payne spoke to us about going to the page with a heart as open as the heart of God.” I do not know, and have decided not to try and find out, whether Elizabeth Strout is a believer. But I think Sarah’s is a loving God.

328741031Other writing advice comes from Lucy’s high school teacher who told her not to use the word ” ‘cheap – it is not nice and it’s not accurate.’ ” (It’s good to read a book that values teachers’ contributions!) And Lucy’s friend Jeremy who tells her to be “ruthless”, which she decides means “grabbing on to myself … saying: ‘This is me, and I will not go where I can’t bear to go… and I will hurl onward through life, blind as a bat, but on I go!’ “

As a writer, I find fictional Sarah Payne’s instructions comforting, generous, challenging, and compassionate. As is the writing of Elizabeth Strout; I’ll return to her other themes soon.

Footnotes:

  1. I’m fairly sure Strout isn’t aware of the British namesake Sarah Payne, whose daughter Sara Payne was murdered after disappearing from a cornfield where she was playing. If only their tragic story had been one of Strout’s compassionate fictional chronicles of small town America instead of real life.
  2. My giveaway of three mystery books – one I’ve reviewed, one I’ve liked and one I’ve written – is still open if you comment here on my short story before April 19th BST. Please do!

©Jessica Norrie 2018