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.


			

Dragging my plot uphill like Sisyphus

Novel Number Two, The Magic Carpet, has been well received at the publishers – the rejections are very kind and positive. Here’s a typical one from last month:

I thought the ensemble characters were great and all clearly had their own well thought out narratives, and it was really interesting to see a novel not sit in a typical middle class setting. Unfortunately however, that being said, I am going to pass on it for the moment, purely as I feel it doesn’t quite sit in a specific genre, and as such it might make for a tricky sell in the commercial fiction market.

Do I care? I’m pretending I don’t. I read Camus as a student, and took his retelling of the Sisyphus11987 lesson to heart. (In brief: Sisyphus annoyed the Greek gods. He was punished by being made to roll a boulder uphill for the rest of his life. Every time he got it to the top, it rolled straight down again.) My agent will just have to go on bowling The Magic Carpet uphill at the publishers and catching it when it rolls down again.  KDP/Amazon can have it in the New Year if we’ve had no joy by then.  

I’m concentrating on Novel Number Three (NN3). I’m at that stage of a first draft when I have 90k words of material (picture Sisyphus aka me heaving my boulder optimistically uphill). I know I’m going to cut at least 20k words and add some other bits as yet unknown (boulder rolls about a third of the way down). I know what the end is – in fact I have several possible endings – up we climb, Sisyphus! But I can’t decide which scene should form the beginning (watch out below, boulder coming down). Different characters keep pushing to the fore and shouting “I’m important too!” (Broadly speaking, this is good news, so up goes Sisyphus with a boulder that seems lighter today.) But watch out for the many others who meekly admit: “I know I’ve taken up a a lot of your time and energy over the last few months, but actually I’m really, er, boring. Why not delete me?” Crash! Boulder hits base camp. Injuries reported.

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Notes weighted down by basket of random oddments that arrive on my desk from places unknown. But look! There’s a small boulder of fools’ gold. How apt.

Although all I’m actually doing is copying, pasting, cutting, repasting, rewriting  chunks of prose on a keyboard, I do feel as though I were pulling a boulder up hill. My ms has a  weighty quality, just as it would if it were a paper copy. I’m tempted to print out the whole lot and move it around physically. I’m sure it would reveal both structural weaknesses and restructuring answers. The only reason I don’t is my moody printer, which bears a grudge against me worthy of any Greek god. It rattles out union rules if I so much as change the settings and 350 pages would end our negotiations for good.

I joined a writing course, currently throwing up more questions. Professional wisdom advised NN3 wouldn’t sell with the subject I’d got and a man narrating in first person. So I changed the narrator to an omniscient female, in third. (For some reading platforms, there follows an unchosen paragraph break imposed by WordPress, whose editing quirks are a known blogger problem. Please excuse the interruption to your service. )

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A book I really should finish reading

Changing narrator involved lots of cumbersome changing of tenses and pronouns, and rewriting chunks of plot that really wouldn’t work in a female voice (see below). Once I’d beaten the POV confusion into order, it seemed to work. Then someone I respect said: “I’d like to hear more from the men. Have you considered a male narrator?” I think, as of last night, we’re agreed on which narration works best, meaning there are only about 40K words to cut and replace, now. Sisyphus can take a breather, half way up, or down, depending how you look at it.

Then there’s the content. Since I’ve been working on NN3, I’ve happened to read The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst, The North Water by Ian McGuire, and John Boyne’s wonderful The Heart’s Invisible Furies. In the evenings I watched A Very English Scandal, an excellent BBC drama about homosexual Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe. Suddenly I found myself writing scenes of male gay sex, mostly consensual. They do say you should write about what you know, but I have form in the art of bluffing. Years ago in the midst of a World Cup, I went to a party given by a policeman, and managed to convince his colleagues I was an expert pundit on the strength of three football related remarks I’d learned off pat.* I wonder if my male gay sex scenes will be as convincing. But then any sex scene is hell to write, ripe for ridicule and reliant on a finite set of possible moves – (more than three? Discuss.) It does pose problems for a female narrator, though, omniscient or not. Maybe she should transition – again.

I do have the theme, which is unarguably resonant at present. But I’m fighting a rearguard action to defend my style against the gods of marketing. Words are like wild flowers in an endangered ecosystem. We need to recognise and protect them or they’ll disappear. I don’t mean deliberately shoving in obscure vocabulary in cleverdick Will Self style. But I do mean active, precise verbs that mean exactly what they say: “clamour/  suggest/ yell/ murmur” as required, in preference to “said” (not every time, obvs). And sentences that just occasionally have the subject at the end and the passive voice permitted once per chapter if the author’s been good.

Perhaps I should give up and just plug away with sales for NN1 – the good old Infinity Pool, a manual of carefree optimistic mistakes of the sort made by a debut novelist who’d barely heard the term “creative writing”. Did I tell you it’s on offer on Amazon.uk until the end of this month? Jump in, but please be kind.

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Update – The Magic Carpet was published in July 2019. See below. 

*I still know the three gems of football punditry but they’re no longer convincing. If I mention Paul Gascoigne those of you over a certain age will know why.

©Jessica Norrie 2018

Sought and Found in Translation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

Hay ho, Hay ho, it’s off to words we go…

Despite not being all that bloggered about posting at the moment, I couldn’t miss the chance for the puns Hay Festival makes possible. Friends nearby had often said: Hay, why don’t you come along? I only went for Tuesday, not the full ten days, and my introduction is more pictures than words, but I hope you catch my Hay fever. This year I was checking out how it all worked, and could only get tickets for one of the three writers I’d have liked to see. Rose Tremain obliged, but Philip Pullman and Margaret Atwood were sold out long before I got my act together. So we only went to one formal activity, but there was much else to entertain us.

Hay-on-Wye itself, permanent population only 1500, has over two dozen bookshops, down from its Hayday but still impressive. Some are now antique shops, and I also diverted into several stylish new and secondhand clothes shops, a  café for Hereford apple cake and an outdoor food market for falafel salad washed down by (strong!) local cider. All accompanied by the classiest of classical guitar buskers…

A town with a bookshop for every 62.5 people is my kind of town. We especially enjoyed  Rose’s Books, where we pounced with delight on affectionately remembered – and long forgotten – gems from our childhoods and giggled over what our grandparents used to read. Remember the Chalet School Girls? Rose has them, along with every Ladybird book you could think of, Rupert and Tin-Tin, William and Jennings, Victorian morality tales, sixties psychedelic picture books and Puffins flying everywhere. Murder and Mayhem, a branch of Addyman‘s, offers a sleuth’s day out, and Richard Booth‘s famous shop includes a cinema.

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After browsing, tasting and trying we walked the half mile to the Festival site. There’s a shuttle bus, but then you’d miss the haphazard, inventive enterprise of people who live along the route. Almost every front garden had been turned into a miniature car boot sale, a home-made food stall, a face painter, portrait artist, vintage clothing pop up rail or a purveyor of free range eggs complete with clucking hens to prove the provenance. It was (or seemed) anarchic and I can’t imagine the authorities allowing it in London, but good for these citizens. I hope they made Hay.

The festival site, guarded by two jovial armed police (in honour of Chelsea Clinton perhaps? Surely not still for Salman Rushdie?)  was crowded with all ages but fewer races than I’d have liked to see. First things first: the portaloos, with real wooden doors, were the best I’ve seen at an outdoor festival. The bookshop and signing centre, in a vast tent, was humid and uncomfortable with criss-crossing queues, so I left and found more clothes shops selling natural fabrics and one-off designs. There’s also jewellery, cider, wine, cheese…it’s fair to say this is not exclusively a book festival. The best tent was a gallery of book illustrators’ prints, with Jackie Morris painting away to demonstrate her technique while discussing her work, including her collaboration with Robert Macfarlane on The Lost Words. I didn’t explore the scribblers’ tent, the Oxfam tent or the many activities for children – I’m sure I missed a lot.

Hay illustrators exhib
The book illustrators’ gallery

But one can only digest so much and we had come for Rose Tremain. She was talking in the vast, impersonal Tata area about her memoir of damaged childhood, Scenes from a Vanished Life. Goodness, this was brave. Obviously, she’s a professional, clearly she knew what she’d written and the questions she would be asked. Nonetheless, this must have been like having therapy in front of thousands of people. She was clear, succinct, careful to say exactly what she meant, and the cold calmness of her delivery made the content all the more moving. As she said, her book started as a personal memoir for family and friends only. But when she perceived how emotionally they reacted, she realised she’d stepped into a novelist’s dream. “It’s every writer’s ambition to move people, and I’d moved them so much I had to widen the book out.” I’d been regretting not also booking to see Maggie O’Farrell earlier that day, talking about the seventeen ways she’s escaped death, but I’m not sure I could have coped with the intensity of both. A little goes a long Hay…

Anyway, here are the holiday snaps. I suspect Hay is a very personal experience which affects everyone a different way. I’ll certainly go back for more next year – and perhaps also when the festival is not on, just to enjoy the town and and the beautiful country around it. Because even the car park was scenic and I could harvest the most multicoloured silk scarf in the world, from the shop opposite the alleyway from the castle…

Hay fairtrde shop - Copy

©Jessica Norrie 2018

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

Finding the write excuse

Some weeks the writing ideas zoom in like fat bees in lavender. Other times someone must have sprayed pesticides. There’s no hope for the novel, short shrift for short stories, and even the blog gets bogged down. That’s serious, because the blog’s raison d’être is to unblock the serious writer in me (though all too often it replaces her entirely).

When I taught French to adults, I would excuse uncompleted homework if they could provide a correctly formulated excuse, eg: “Le chien a mangé mes devoirs.”

How do you rate my excuses?

  1. Last week’s post was too good! Yes, that’s right, I was very pleased with my blog post last week. I admired both my own writing style, and my choice of content. My chest puffed out; I smiled graciously;  I stood behind an imaginary lectern spouting wisdom to an enthralled audience. I’ve made myself a hard act to follow.
  2. The weather. Tax 5Seriously. My study is the coldest room in the house. The UK climate was playing cruel homage to Antonia White’s wonderful Frost in May. No bees buzzed. I cowered beneath blankets gazing mournfully out at my dying cherry tree. When it’s cold in winter I can write. When it’s cold in spring my pen shrivels (Can pens shrivel? – Ed.)
  3. I have a busy month coming up. Trips planned, student reunions, family things, cultural highlights. I take packing for these very seriously, and had to put aside a lot of time for inventing obstacles to worry about.
  4. My reading has stalled, so I can’t give a review for this week’s post. I’m currently 4682558in the middle of two books: Leonardo and the Last Supper by Ross King in preparation for a trip to Milan, and The Book of Night Women by Marlon James, which my son gave me for my birthday. They’re both very good, but as a Goodreads review says, “whenever i read books written in dialect it always takes me at least 40 pages to start to get the hang of it”. As a (highly appropriate and skilfully used) vehicle for intensity, cruelty, and injustice the voice isn’t always easy to process. And why are both printed in such an exhaustingly tiny font? When my reading staggers my writing stumbles too.
  5. I did my tax return. This is grounds for congratulation – I’ve never completed it soTax 8 promptly before. It didn’t take long, because to be frank the piles of receipts and associated expenditure on my authorial life are not that high. (The million pound advance for The Magic Carpet must be lost in the post.) So given the level of turnover, can I really describe myself to the Inland Revenue as a writer? On the other hand, bearing in mind recent estimates of average author income, do my low earnings provide the proof?
  6. Amazon returned the interior proofs for the German translation of The Infinity PoolI can be of absolutely no help checking these, but there was a lot of associated emailing with my long suffering, hard working, optimistic German translator Michaela and I do so hope for her sake even more than mine that her hard work finds some appreciative readers and reviewers.
  7. My writing ideas are unrepeatable. A couple of plot ideas did surface recently as a result of memories friends recounted to me, in that innocent way they have over a glass of wine after a concert, unaware their writer friend is salting it all away for use in chapter six. But in the cold light of day I’ve realised what a betrayal it would be to use them.
  8. I had to cultivate my garden, not in the Voltairean sense but literally. I’d bought some plants before the most recent mini ice age intervened and urgent life saving was needed.
  9. There are cracks in the living room plaster that could mean anything and have to be watched. tax cracks
  10. Le chien a mangé mes devoirs. Je n’ai pas de chien.
  11. The idea I do have is reserved for Smorgasbord in a couple of weeks.
  12. Just realised I wrote this post or one very like it shortly after starting blogging, and also the following New Year. More proof I’m a professional writer – glossy magazines have been recycling the same articles for decades.

If you’re still with me through all these excuses, take my advice: you must – like me – have better things to do. Like I said, last week’s post was good. Why not revisit that?

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

 

 

 

 

 

Mark my words: teaching, writing, learning

My so far unpublished novel The Magic Carpet involves the demands schools make on families. I was pleased to see my themes reinforced this week by Andria Zafirakou who’s been named “the world’s best teacher”. Ms Zafirakou is one of so many committed, imaginative colleagues who deserve awards, and interestingly, she works in ways this government may barely regard as teaching. With characteristic goodwill she’s now using the prize and publicity to reinforce the same messages I believe in.

Ms Zafirakou teaches creative subjects, art and textiles – yes, they do matter, Mr Gove and successors! She provides breakfast because hungry pupils can’t learn – take note, ministers who proposed abolishing free school meals for over a million children this week? She knows their housing conditions because she makes home visits, unlike the council leader who’d never entered a tower block before Grenfell burned down. She sees children onto the bus at night to protect them from gang violence. (How sad – senior staff were doing that when I was on teaching practice in 1983.) She greets them in their home languages and shows them art from their own cultures before asking them to appreciate  “our” Renaissance.

A G girls use this one
I’ve blanked these faces in a snap I found from a 1985 school outing, as a courtesy to their now middle aged owners. If one of you sees it and wants the original, get in touch!

I got burnt out after far smaller efforts than Ms Zafirakou makes. When you leave teaching to be a writer, you swap wielding a red pen over other people’s work to being marked yourself, first during the writing process and then at the final exam. It’s a salutary lesson. I’ve been working out level descriptors and grade boundaries for The Magic Carpet since my agent began submitting it.

A* I thoroughly enjoyed reading it / absolutely loved this / a great cast of characters / Jessica is a very accomplished writer/ it was such a topical read / engagement in such a wide range of contemporary issues

A – a clever idea / certainly timely and thought-provoking / an enjoyable read / really authentically written / I thought that was a really nice touch and something quite different

B a nice premise / it’s a lovely novel and I wish you lots of luck placing it elsewhere / well written

C –  I couldn’t quite see how we would position it on our list and it is for this reason that I’m going to have to pass / I wish you the best of luck in finding the right home for it / We were a little conflicted on this one 

Dconcept a little contrived / the pace suffered a bit / this didn’t quite grab me enough to take forward / voice not distinctive enough

Edifficult for me to invest in the characters / a bit confusing due to the amount of characters and the contrast between children’s and adult voices / too many changing viewpoints so the narrative didn’t quite have that flow

Fail – I may have been a little over generous to myself with these grade boundaries, as none of the (real) remarks above have led to a bidding war or indeed a single offer, so in a sense they’re all fails. 

What to do? I could move on – my sardonic mother would say: “If at first you don’t succeed, give up!” I could revert to teaching. Or I could learn from the grade E lesson – too many viewpoints.

One theme of The Magic Carpet is how differently people experience the same intended provision. My story shows diverse pupils in a typical London school, the contrasting ways their families support them (or don’t/can’t) through one school demand, and the implications for their futures. The story theme and structure involve multiple experiences stemming from the same request, so I’ve written several viewpoints. But I did whittle them down from the standard thirty in a class to five, and each voice does have discrete chapters. In real life they’d all be clamouring at once! I also focussed on a single homework project, whereas as any parent knows, schools often make simultaneous demands: uniform, outings, payments, charity events, sports, closures, exams…

Although the disparate audience is any teacher’s everyday reality, successive governments have proved increasingly dense in their pursuit of a one size educational model for all. (Stay with me: it’s a novel, not a political discussion paper.)

School languages
My bible, for many years of my career, published by Reading University in 1996.

Families don’t have a simple, single point of view. I chose the voices of two mothers, a father, and a grandmother who provides daily childcare. Also one child, because too much discussion of schools doesn’t allow children to speak. They’re from different ethnic backgrounds, because around 37% of Londoners were born outside the UK.  Readers need to get their heads round these five viewpoints, which are initially separate but link as the story progresses. By comparison, a teacher seeing infants off at the end of the day routinely receives random information from up to thirty carers of any gender, orientation, religion, mother tongue, ability or class (potentially involving housing, health, safeguarding, relationships, finance, tuition, leisure, progress, immigration status…) I wanted to get a flavour of that onslaught, without leaving anyone as overwhelmed as teachers often are.

But the E grade editors tell me it’s confusing. A simple aid, discussed by Book Connectors recently, would be to insert a list of characters by household at the beginning. I prefer that to radical surgery. Cutting the viewpoints would weaken the point: the mix of generations, heritages, preoccupations and capacities sharing the same space.

On a lighter, equally important note, The Magic Carpet is about stories, creativity and drama, learning through fun and allowing children a childhood.

I’d love this quote from Ms Zafirakou on the cover of The Magic Carpet: It’s great to say every child should have the same potential, but you need to know the personal background and the lives of your children, and how different and complex they are.” I hope she’d approve of my fictional children who in their creative storytelling are, as she advises, “communicating…  building up social skills, talking about and breaking down role play…  life skills that every child needs.” They’re being entertained and entertaining too, as my readers will be if/when the magic carpet makes its maiden voyage and lands on the booksellers’ tables.

So I’ve decided neither to give up or cut viewpoints for now (unless a publisher offers to guide me). I’ll maintain faith in my product, and wait for one of the people who “absolutely loves this” to be Chair of the Board and override everyone else. I’ll continue to advocate for children, through writing, not teaching. Meanwhile congratulations, Andria Zafirakou and all the teachers and assistants like you.

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

A prescription for blocked writers

I’d written my Work In Progress into a dark, locked cellar. It was time for something to stimulate and inspire. My budget precludes a long writing course, and I don’t like online learning. But since 2014 I’d had positive experiences at a Guardian Masterclass with William Ryan, a summer workshop with Marina Warner, and a Spread the Word mentoring session. So I booked “Building Stories” with London Lit Lab. The course aimed to “use the experience of our public and private spaces to inspire evocative fiction.” At the very least I’d have the privilege of working in two of London’s most impressive buildings. At best I’d start writing my way back upstairs.

Attendees included published and unpublished writers, academics, artists and therapists hoping to write fiction or poetry, and our tutors were Zoe Gilbert (Folk) and Lily Dunn.

Riba hall
RIBA, 1st floor landing, with busy participants

Our Saturday setting was the Royal Institute of British Architects, designed by George Grey Wornum, with interiors by his wife Miriam. Light from huge windows and etched glass doors floods the gleaming floors and emphatic angled spaces. Why architects would need a ballroom isn’t obvious, but they have one here to suit the most demanding Cinderella, with a grand staircase for her glass slipper to trip down and curved sofas inviting assignations. The library was modelled on a cruise liner and the soundproofed council chamber had a throne. In our conference room, originally white leather walls had turned uncleanably yellow from the smoke of a thousand meetings. We creaked across sprung floors and hauled ourselves up from the public space to narrower private staircases. Then we jotted our sensory impressions in short unpolished phrases, some of which we shared, anonymously.

An architect helped us study plans from the RIBA archives, including homes, schools, a debtor’s prison, a pheasantry, and an exhibition space. Our new understanding transformed them from codified diagrams to pictures in the mind’s eye. Stories unfolded.

Next, we were to imagine a building used other than for its original purpose. Writing an activity that didn’t fit the space would subvert it, creating tension. A derelict house, bereft of domesticity, is sinister. A church converted to flats must be deconsecrated. When a psychiatric hospital becomes a gated estate of private homes is it more or less of a refuge for the residents? Tube stations in the Blitz with people sleeping on the platforms, stables for cars instead of warm, living horses, ice hotels, the ruined swimming pool where Djokovic practised tennis as a boy. Map the mismatch, said Zoe and Lily. We scribbled away under the nicotine walls. I found myself immersed in a semi-serious idea from years ago, clamouring to be used. It had come to the fore because repurposing a building activates parts of the brain we don’t often use.

After lunch we discussed the psychology of spaces. How conversations run depends whether we’re sitting in a cafe or on a roller coaster. The rooms we’ve lived in are repositories for dreams, thoughts, conversations we’ve had in them (think of Proust). I was reminded how unsettled my father’s house seemed, when he was in hospital and I was popping in to pick things up. Something intangible had left with him, as though the house already knew he would never return… In the deadly quiet of the soundproofed council chamber we read of a Kate Chopin heroine in her hallway and her bedroom, her emotions and expectations adapting to each. The more private space meant she could explore her own secrets, have her epiphany and the story could move on.

We imagined someone with a secret, in a place where they feel safe. What happens? Zoe had postcard portraits, for anyone without such a character in mind already. Hooray! One was Protagonist J, in my stalled WIP. Now I know what he looks like! I described his safe space, nothing like the cold flat air of the council chamber but encouraged into existence there. Then I threatened it.

For a final Point of View, we were given a secret character – mine was a woman with a migraine – and had to write her POV on entering RIBA that morning. Could the others guess her traits from our narrative? It was an elegant way to end the day by referring to how far we’d come since we met.

BL seen on a staircase
British Library foyer, showing “The Tapestry”, from a Kitaj painting with the same name.

The British Library was a contrast on Sunday, our home turf a colourless basement “learning room” with an enormous expanse of white table, and no natural light (but better than my cellar). In groups we tried Erasure poetry, extracting evocative words and phrases from existing work(s), erasing or juxtaposing them to “write” something new. I was tired so on this occasion it didn’t do much for me, but others were immersed and stimulated, creating new poems together on huge sheets of paper. (My Erasure on that sentence might be: It did       for me,      creating    on     huge sheets. ) I thought of Rachel Whiteread’s blank windowed buildings, and of my favourite sentence from Reservoir 13: “There was weather”. So often, silent spaces are as important as what’s there.

Riba writing in council chamber
Council chamber, RIBA

BL room
Our learning room at the BL

We wandered the British Library, making notes for a story about some aspect of the building, or an object housed there. Touch, memories, smells: not only visuals. We drew mind maps of our journey, and of imaginary places in the invisible, non public parts of buildings. This time the huge sheets did work for me, my notes proving fertile fodder later.

BL underground
Who knows what’s in the invisible spaces of our public buildings?

In the afternoon with much shushing and confiscation of pens, we wrote in the Reading Room, normally closed on Sundays. (Pencils only, for fear of marking valuable books.) This room exuded concentration, and we all wrote for forty minutes in palpable silence like brocade drapes muffling us from distraction. (Bit overwrought – Ed.)

BL lightswitch
We stood back for the bigger picture and homed in in the details

Lastly, we discussed editing, considering two versions of a Raymond Carver story. A useful, practical discussion, ending with wine and some shared readings of our stories, before I dived even further underground for the tube home.

Thank you to Zoe, Lily and colleagues for a constructive and enjoyable weekend. For me, the tendency to focus on more literary fiction was especially welcome. These courses don’t end with the final well earned glass of wine, but give participants ideas to draw on for years to come. I enjoyed taking the writing medecine so much, I’ve treated myself to a day at Chawton too. I’m on my way back upstairs!

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©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

Barnes lecture 1
Before the event

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

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

Barnes lecture 7

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

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

Lee: Why are your books so short?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Jessica Norrie 2018