Speaking of things 'northern', how do you fancy a writers' retreat in Iceland? As you'll see there, among the writers leading workshops is Geraldine Brooks, someone who would be very much worth hearing, I should think.
In conversation with James Naughtie and the studio audience she discusses, among other things, the "northern light and northern gloom" which pervade the book, the influence of Greek drama on it, and her love of Dickens.
When I was in Oxford last month I took a look at the Bodleian's Barbara Pym display, and I apologise for the quality of the photographs, but if you follow that link to the website you'll see the exhibits much more clearly. The Library holds her literary papers and put on show a selection of letters and notebooks, including a draft of Excellent Women (see below).
On this morning's post on Cornflower, Lucille mentioned she had a copy of Plat du Jours by Patience Gray and Primrose Boyd inscribed 'Barbara Pym' on the title page, so I hope that these examples of the Miss Pym's handwriting match the signature in that book!
On that post I was quoting from a letter from Philip Larkin to BP, and he was - famously - her fan and champion. Extracts from many of their letters appear in Hazel Holt's biography, including the following exchange which I found very interesting:
PL writes: "... my feeling is that Angela Thirkell, for instance, vitiated her later books by mentioning everyone in every one, and I think it's a device needing very sharp control if this danger is to be avoided. I realise of course you are using a different method - coincidence rather than Barchester - but it has its pitfalls, to my mind, all the same. ..."
BP: "It can be a tiresome affectation. With me it's sometimes laziness - if I need a casual clergyman or anthropologist I just take one from an earlier book. Perhaps one should take such a very minor character that only the author recognises it, like a kind of superstition or a charm."
Hazel Holt comments, "The fact was that she had created such a complete world that it was perfectly possible for a character from one book to move about easily in another. And, of course, many of her friends and readers simply wanted to know 'what happened next' to their favourite characters after the book had ended."
There's a lot of food for thought there.
As to that 'complete world', Antonia White observed (in a review) how it was created:
"... working in petit point, she makes each stitch with perfect precision. She keeps her design so perfectly to scale, and places one mild tint in such happy juxtaposition to another that this reader ... derived considerable pleasure from it."
Simon S's post today is about books we couldn't finish or ones which we've put down, mystified as to how they've got to where they are in the first place. I came upon one of the latter recently and would like to talk about it - obliquely - to make a point.
I picked up the novel in question with high hopes as it sounded my sort of thing, and I anticipated a good read. What I found was a patchwork piece of writing: some very competent passages which showed that the author had a flair for a sentence, knew how to make a detail work, could sketch a scene and colour it well, but elsewhere, I could follow the writer's tracks, as it were, and I could see that at various junctures they had lost their way, and when that happened the scenes which followed were at best 'random', at worst irrelevant and pointless, and this was where the patchwork aspect came in, the darning, the 'stick that bit there to cover the join and no-one will be any the wiser'.
More importantly than that, the entire plot was undermined because at best a weak case was made for the central character's actions - actions and decisions on which the whole book hinged - and at worst no case at all. Nothing would stand up to scrutiny. The story, such as it was, was fundamentally and fatally flawed.
It strikes me that the author, whose debut this was, has been very poorly served by their agent, in the first place, and their editor, in the second. A careful reading should have shown up all the book's weaknesses (which I and others have spotted), and a sympathetic and diligent agent/editor should have sent back the manuscript with a view to making the whole thing much stronger and tighter, something which I'm sure the writer could have done.
Why am I mentioning this? It bothers me. It bothers me that readers - and here I mean the professionals - should be so lax and undemanding, because the book has attracted a certain amount of favourable attention, an amount out of all proportion to its worth as it stands, in my opinion, and from quarters from which I'd have expected much greater discernment. I know others share my views on this, so it's not just a case of my being unduly pernickety. Regardless of genre, target audience, projected place on the 'literary ladder', a novel should meet certain standards, it should be good of its kind, however unpretentious or ambitious that may be; it's disappointing when a book falls short.
One step in the manufacturing process for Harris tweed is the close examination of the fabric against the light to ensure the weave is even and there are broken threads. Similarly, as last night's documentary on Liberty showed, 'draft'* lengths of Tana lawn will be sent back for re-printing so that the colour balance can be re-adjusted and a harmonious design achieved. Why is the same care and attention to detail and overall quality not being paid to books within the publishing process? Why is 'unfinished' work being put out? Do readers, i.e. the public, just not care?
*Edited to add: this article contains more information about the Liberty design process, including "strike offs" or "fents".
- This review of Elizabeth Jane Howard's All Change (the fifth in the Cazalets series) says it's "as impressive as anything she has written". (If you don't already know EJH's memoir Slipstream, I do recommend it.)
"In a novel, the narrative moves from start to finish, from beginning to end. But within that framework time can be juggled, treated with careless disregard - the story can progress, can dip backwards, fold up, expand. What matters is the satisfactory whole defined by Frank Kermode: 'All such plotting presupposes and requires that an end will bestow upon the whole duration and meaning.' For a novel to work, you want to come away from reading it with the sense that everything has gathered towards a convincing conclusion - not one that necessarily ties up every loose end, but one that feels an integral part of what has gone before. It must make sense of the space between the beginning and the end. You start reading a novel with no idea where this thing is going to go; you should finish it feeling that it could have gone no other way.
The novelist would like the writing process to be thus; it is not - or at least not for me. I do need to have a good idea where the thing is going - I won't have started at all until a notebook is full of ideas and instructions to myself. And I will have achieved the finishing line only after pursuing various options, wondering if this would work better than that. The reader should have an easy ride at the expense of the writer's accumulated hours of inspiration and rejection and certainty and doubt."
"A faun carrying an umbrella; a hobbit who lives in a hole; a mysterious name - Lyra; an ill-treated schoolboy with a scar and a secret. Children's fantasies may be said in some sense to begin with resonant images - certainly they often do so in the authors' myths of origins. However, they also begin in an author's reading practices, in his or her own experiences, in the influences which, acknowledged or not, shape and articulate their own vision and help define what it is and, sometimes more importantly, what it is not."
That's the opening of the chapter 'The magical Middle Ages in children's fantasy literature' by David Clark, from Magical Tales: Myth, Legend and Enchantment in Children's Books, a book which I am finding quite fascinating and which is leading me off down all sorts of highways and byeways, remembering books and stories I read as a child, discovering others I haven't read yet and very much want to; it's a many-branched signpost, and it provides a clear illustration - if one were needed - of the cross-pollination of ideas, of how an 'old story' can by re-interpretation become something new, and of how the chain of influence and inspiration stretches from folklore, myth and legend, through the earliest written literature to that of the present day.
"[Tomorrow I] shall smell a red rose; shall gently surge across the lawn (I move as if I carried a basket of eggs on my head), light a cigarette, take my writing board on my knee; and let myself down, like a diver, very cautiously into the last sentence I wrote yesterday."
Of her desk, above, Virginia said, "It is not an ordinary desk, not such a desk as you might buy in London or Edinburgh you see in anybodies [sic] house when you go to lunch; this desk is a sympathetic one, full of character; trusty, discreet, very reserved."
When the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art staged their F.C.B. Cadell exhibition two years ago, they painted the walls of the rooms in which the paintings were hung the same shade of lavender grey as Cadell used in his studio.
It seems the gallery is not unique in going to such lengths in their preparation, for in this video, Tracy Chevalier explains why she re-paints the walls of her study when she begins work on a new book - and her notebooks* are colour-coordinated, too. That short film was made when she was working on Remarkable Creatures, so an early 19th. century grey provided authenticity and inspiration, but I wonder what colour she has chosen for her current project, a novel which - as you can see here - will feature fruit trees.
This post will just scrape in before the 28th. of August is over, and the date is important because it is the 100th. anniversary of Robertson Davies's birth, something I confess I would not have been aware of but for this short piece this morning.
Happily, I still have lots of his books left to read, but those I have read - including Fifth Business with our own book group - have been marvellously rich reads, distinctive of voice, strong in narrative pull, and fascinating in content and ideas. If you've yet to discover his work, do try him soon (his three great trilogies, for example, Salterton, Deptford and Cornish, or The Cunning Man),
and as Martin Chilton says in that article, take one on a long journey* and you may find, as he did, that the miles pass very pleasantly.
by Eleanor Catton, longlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize and tipped to win (I've read it, and it's mightily impressive). Burial Rites
by Hannah Kent, a debut novel, the subject of an international bidding war, out this week and high on my TBR pile. The authors of these books came all the way from New Zealand and Australia respectively to talk to an eager audience at EIBF.
Eleanor's book is set on the west coast of New Zealand's South Island during a gold rush in the 1860s, and it was the drama of that landscape, which Eleanor visited often as a youngster, which captured her imagination and inspired her story. Hannah's takes as its subject Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland, and an exchange visit she made to Iceland as a teenager planted the seed that would grow into a work praised by Madeline Miller as "gripping ... beautifully written ... outstanding."
The Luminaries is a murder mystery, a ghost story, a psychological drama, a book of extraordinary complexity and richness written in perfect 19th. century style. In discussing her influences, Eleanor talked persuasively about her desire to "defend the adverb", how psychology changed the landscape of the novel forever, and how Agatha Christie's books taught her how to keep the reader reading. In Burial Rites, which tells Agnes's story from when she is found guilty of murder, sentenced to death and waits out the months until her execution at a farm in the north of the country, Hannah has used several narrative voices and fragments of letters, aiming by these means to explore the ambiguity, depth and humanity of her subject, contrasting that with received opinion which paints Agnes as simply and starkly "monstrous and evil".
Both books are very well plotted, and on the subject of plotting generally, Eleanor talked about what is seen as a distinction between literary and genre fiction, i.e. that in the case of the former, plot is secondary. This fascinates and enrages her, she says, as she feels plot is every bit as important as structure, and that novelists could learn a lot from watching high quality television drama such as Breaking Bad which provide lessons in suspense and in keeping character and plot alive and developing. Eleanor wanted her book to be entertaining: "entertainment isn't necessarily low brow," she said. In Hannah's case, her plot was formed by actual events, although her research into them was gradual and laborious. She was researching and writing concurrently, "finding the dots and then joining them," so the suspense "just happened" as she waited to discover what came next, but the effort she put into understanding and shaping her characters shaped the plot, too.
Hannah told us that her book is "a dark love letter to the natural landscape of Iceland", reflecting in some ways her own experience of living there, of the slow descent into winter, of the place and its culture. Eleanor, when asked whether her book could have been shorter (it is 832 pages), talked of wanting to do justice to the 19th. century style she'd adopted and to her large cast of characters by giving them space to evolve. She employs a structural conceit, too, making each part half the length of the one before, thus "a golden spiral", a shaping force, and she admitted that she didn't know whether the ambitious task she had set herself was even possible until she had completed it. I can tell you that she's done it in fine form.
Edna O'Brien at 82: a luminous quality to her presence and her prose, elegant, erudite, perceptive, witty and wise, she charmed the EIBF audience, and was in turn delighted that so many (for it was a sell-out) had come to hear her. She has described herself as "ravenous for life" and "never lacking in energy or appetite", and this was evident in her recollections of a life lived, much of which she has written about in her memoir Country Girl.
Chairing the event, journalist Ruth Wishart described Edna O'Brien as "a weaver of magical prose, a consummate wordsmith", and in both the extract she read from her book and in her account of the process of writing it - "grounding memory, giving it its physicality" - she showed not only her eloquence but the depth of her thinking and feeling.
"Injuries and wrongs are very good for fiction," she said, recalling the painful events of her past, but she also credited her parents for giving her the gifts of stories and storytelling, even though her childhood lacked books (in the village where she grew up there was a single copy of Rebecca, loaned out by the page - but not consecutively), and the absence of the printed word didn't stifle the young Edna's latent creativity. Fueling both her imagination and her romantic sensibilities were a disparate collection of influences, she told us, beginning with "Our Lord - the unattainable, heroic, sacrificial," then moving on to Count Dracula, "all sweeping black", as portrayed by a group of travelling players which came to her village in rural Ireland, and then she dicovered Heathcliff: "not a practical man who paid the rent and grew potatoes...".
Navigating what she referred to as the minefield that is biography, she has compressed "80 years of turmoil" into her book, concentrating on "attachment, love, betrayal, debt - our inner life is racked by these concerns". On writing itself, "I leave the real world outside the door when I write," she says, and "keep the child within as far as any creative work is concerned, but keep the parent there as well".
Billed as "Dystopian Dramas for a New Age", Friday's EIBF event featuring Samantha Shannon and James Smythe might have looked dark and even drear on paper, but was in fact a light-hearted, often hilarious discussion which would open anyone's mind to the world of books, or the parts of it they had yet to discover.
Samantha was there to talk about The Bone Season
(for more on it click here, and I must just mention in passing that it had sold out in the Festival Bookshop even before the event), while James was introducing his new novel The Machine in which a woman tries to 're-build' her psychologically damaged husband in a possible near future. While Samantha's book imagines a future based on an alternate history of Britain (everything changed in 1859), James took our present concerns with global warming, war and the economy and used them to threaten his society. Both are 'genre' books, but James commented that readers are very willing to buy into new worlds such as we see here, and Samantha made reference to the fact that hers is a grounded fantasy with a strong sense of realism. From urban dystopian fantasy to modern gothic horror, Samantha - quoting Isaac Asimov on science fiction - talked about these and others as "flavours" to be applied rather than definitive genres in themselves.
The Machine is concerned with the mind and with what makes us who we are. Beth's husband Vic suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after serving with the army in a war, but a machine has extracted his bad memories; however, it has taken more than that, and now although this machine has been banned as too controversial and its side-effects too harmful, it is the only device Beth can use to reconstruct the husband she once knew. Samantha's book features the depths of the mind as well, seen and reached by clairvoyants. For The Bone Season she has constructed a hierarchical system of voyants, each with plausible limits, and so the world of the book is presented on both a physical and a spiritual level. Inspired by the work of Margaret Atwood and George Orwell, she has layered fantasy with reality to great effect.
James talked very interestingly about the difficulty of reaching readers (including some very close to home!), no matter what sort of book one writes, and both writers described their paths to publication, James's through what he considers to be a poor first novel, and Samantha's after her early work was rejected - something she found very painful and off-putting. Asked what advice they would give to their younger selves in the light of these experiences, they urged perseverance, resilience and openness to constructive criticism - and not reading the 'bad' Amazon/Goodreads reviews!
My EIBF event yesterday featured two writers, each one taking real people or events as the raw material for their fiction. Courtney Collins was there to talk about her debut The Burial, described as "a dark, swooning upgrade of the Australian gothic genre", while from closer to home, Rosemary Goring's book After Flodden
features a young woman's search for her brother in the aftermath of that infamous battle.
Courtney's book is on my TBR pile and so I was very keen to hear her talk about it and read from it - she chose an early passage that was intense, beautiful, atmospheric and dark; Rosemary's novel is new to me but very much 'of the moment' in that the 500th anniversary of the battle is just days away. Although clearly very different in period, subject matter and style, both books aim "to put flesh on a woman", in Courtney's case the circus rider, bushranger and horse and cattle rustler Jessie Hickman, in Rosemary's a fictional character, Louise Brenier, a pivotal figure one of whose functions is to correct an imbalance, for as Rosemary said, "women play a great part in war but you never see them; in the aftermath, they pick up the reins."
Critic Allan Massie describes After Flodden as "a tremendous Romance, the work of a wild and turbulent imagination, a
tale of blood, slaughter, treachery, devotion, and adventure", while Elizabeth Gilbert says of The Burial, "this extraordinary novel - propelled by the dark, rich talents of a truly brilliant writer - dazzles, staggers and amazes".
Courtney grew up in Australia's Hunter Valley, where Jessie herself lived, and her familiarity with the place, its landscape, its folklore even, led her to choose that real woman - about whom not much hard fact is known - as her central character. Her difficulty was in how best to tell her story, from which point of view? In what Jackie McGlone, the event's chair, described as "a daring magical realist twist", Courtney eventually settled on the voice of Jessie's dead baby, and this unorthodox solution helped ease what Courtney described as "the creative tension between the facts of Jessie's life and the writing of fiction per se".
Rosemary then set her book in its historical context, describing the background to Flodden and its effect on the fortunes of Scotland. Disastrous for the Scots, it saw the death of King James IV and the loss of 10,000 men in two hours, and through her research Rosemary wanted to better understand why this happened. Though working with real events, it's fiction, not history, she's writing, and so she says, "I use facts like a trampoline - to bounce away from". Interestingly, both writers were keen to reject the label "historical fiction" for their work. Rosemary explained that she was not a fan of the genre, while Courtney thinks place, rather than period, is key to her book; neither wanted to be pigeon-holed, but while Courtney described her novel as "a project of empathy with Australia's [dark] past", Rosemary admitted her dislike of the 'hist.fic' tag was based on snobbery: "it's a lazy label and too easily thrown around," she said.
Whether or not these books are assigned to a category, what was evident from what their authors had to say was, as Courtney put it, "[one's] faith in fiction acts like a force - to find the way to the truth."
Tracy Chevalier's work is "renowned for its rich evocation of times past", said journalist Jackie McGlone as she introduced Tracy to the packed main theatre at EIBF today, and in talking about her books in general but with particular emphasis on her latest novel The Last Runaway, that historical novelist's flair for capturing a period and for telling a compelling a story was very much in evidence.
We spent a most entertaining hour hearing Tracy read - with accents! - from the book and then discuss her research and writing and even reveal a little of what her next novel is to be about (more on that later), and she was such a relaxed interviewee and a funny, engaging person that the hour sped by far too quickly.
If you haven't already read The Last Runawaythis post gives the gist, and you'll see that both Quaker culture and quilting are major elements of the story. Back in March, Tracy kindly wrote a guest post for me on how she learned to quilt as part of her research for the book, and she talked at some length about this today. She likes to give her characters something to do with their hands, "a daily activity which anchors them", and when she took up quilting herself (stitching entirely by hand, never with a machine) she found the work and its rhythm put her in "a non-verbal place, contemplative and quiet." In this respect it reminded her of the fossil-hunting she'd done as background to Remarkable Creatures when 'switching off ' and letting the mind wander while walking on the rocks helped the eye to focus and spot the fossils; and so in writing she feels the writer must not be self-conscious, but get out of their own way, taking a straightforward, uncomplicated approach without over-thinking the work.
Related to this, Tracy spoke of the need for quiet in our increasingly noisy world where stillness is rare. Attending Quaker summer camps as a child, she learnt to sit in silence, and as she still attends Quaker Meeting, the quiet there allows "the words to drain away from [her] mind". She spoke of Sara Maitland's A Book of Silence, of her own efforts to say less in everyday life, and of the companionable silence in which close friends can sit happily together. She is a good advocate for a quieter life, and her work - as I alluded to here - is the best advertisement for an economical style.
As an American in Britain (albeit one who las lived here all her adult life), Tracy's view of the cultural differences is a wry one. She talked amusingly of the British sense of humour and liking for irony, even our love of tea: "a cup of tea punctuates a moment; that's what it's there for."
Asked whether, given her love of research, she had ever considered being a historian and writing non-fiction, she told how difficult she found it to write even a short factual piece; in contrast, writing fiction is like "doing a Jackson Pollock - there's room to play!" As to her next novel, it's about emigration and a family moving from the UK to the US and back over many, many years. Its focus is "what we take with us", in this case trees, specifically fruit trees, in order to "retain the taste of our homeland". "We think trees stay in one place, but they follow us around," Tracy says. I can't wait to read it and I hope that when it's out, Tracy will return to Edinburgh to talk about it - I know she'll be very welcome if she does.
As she introduced Jane Gardam at this morning's Edinburgh International Book Festival event, The Guardian's literary editor Claire Armitstead made reference to the sense of mischief in her books. The hour the audience spent in her company was certainly a hilarious one, that somewhat mischievous sense of humour very much to the fore as she read from her latest novel Last Friends - the third volume in the trilogy which began with Old Filth - and talked about her work and writing in general.
We've noted before on these pages that writers are not always good at reading their own work, well here was someone whose gift for the comedic, and for comic timing, had the audience in stitches as she read an early passage from the novel featuring Dulcie, Fiscal-Smith, and a sepulchrally cold church.
Beginning with the line "The Titans were gone", Last Friends takes up some of the minor characters of the series, 'the background people' as Jane Gardam called them, though no less interesting and important than those who have taken the foreground thus far; so here is retired barrister Fiscal-Smith, the "enigmatic scarecrow", a teacher, "Sir", based on Geoffrey Grigson's headmaster, and Terence Veneering, great rival to Sir Edward Feathers QC ('Old Filth'*) in both work and love.
Asked how she came up with the character of Filth in the first place, Jane Gardam said she was wandering along London's Piccadilly one day when a man, "handsome beyond belief", emerged from the Ritz. He was beautifully dressed in Edwardian style, wore wonderful shoes, but - the telling detail - carried a very battered briefcase: he must be a lawyer. The young woman knew in that moment that she would one day write about the man, whom she had first taken to be a ghost, and in a similar example of a character stepping into a writer's life, she told the story of Baroness Orczy who was standing in a London Undergound station looking towards the empty tunnel when out of it walked a man, The Scarlet Pimpernel, a 'vision from the past' whom she made her own.
Filth took shape on the page when with almost no notice she was asked to write a short story for The Oldie. "You can do it off the top of your head," said the editor Richard Ingrams, and she did, inventing her two lawyers, one the lover of the other's wife: Filth & co. were born. Now in Last Friends we learn more about Veneering's childhood in a rough town in the north east of England, his coal-delivering mother and cossack acrobat father, and here their creator said that Margaret Drabble provided the necessary corroboration for the presence of cossacks in the area at that time! This unusual family situation recognises class division but also individual strengths, and there are some powerful scenes in that part of the book.
"Writing fiction is a peculiar profession," Jane Gardam said, "it's as if one is possessed", and quoting Iris Murdoch, "we don't know what we're doing - 'til it's finished". As to taking liberties with form as she does here, "the novel should be experimenting all the time; put in patches of drama, of 'screenplay', if you want, as long as it's not a ragbag," and preferring a spare style, she feels this "leaves room for the reader" and allows them to be intrigued. Keeping track of her characters, particularly over three books, wasn't easy for her but the writing itself provided another world to occupy, something which was valuable in its own right, and comforting at difficult times. Will there be a fourth book? Jane Gardam fears she's "past it", but I very much hope not.
*The acronym for "Failed In London, Try Hong Kong".
Jenn's book uses a variety of narrators from the family of whom it is a portrait on a single day, and asked about the technical difficulty of rendering such a range of voices distinguishable and plausible she admitted it had been "nightmarish", but was keen to see how far a first person narrative can be stretched. She approached the task by deciding initially what her characters wouldn't say, and then she "chipped away" at their vocabulary and verbal style to create each voice. She drew on her own background growing up within the Mormon faith (which she has since left) to inform the book, and in writing it she was keen to give space to those for whom the religion is sustaining as well as those who don't sit easily within it.
Peggy's book stems not from personal experience but from an interest in cults and the charismatic men who found them. Her research led her to examine what it means to be part of a cult-family, as "sister-wives", the base of a pyramid with a single man at the top, but she pointed out that however they ended up all these movements were, or were intended to be, "utopian societies created in tremendous hope" which provided a supportive community of sorts to people to whom that meant everything.
Both writers were asked about the challenge of writing flawed and vulnerable characters, and Jenn said that while all hers fell into that category, she didn't think that that per se meant she'd have to work harder to get readers to care about them. Peggy's character Sorrow, the elder of the two sisters and the first-born in the cult-family, is difficult to like, but Peggy herself is interested in ambitious women in societies such as that of her book, and Sorrow - whose story forms a particularly dark thread in the book - is a powerful and dramatic figure and a very good foil for her mother Amaranth and sister Amity.
On the subject of writing in the wider sense, Peggy's background as a playwright meant that she had to learn the craft of fiction for this novel - I'd call her a master of it now - but she said that the hardest part of the process is "sitting down"! Jenn agreed with that and told us that when she wrote her first novel, aged 21 or 22, the sheer scale of the work involved came as a huge shock. For her, and after the sitting down, the structuring was the biggest challenge as she was good at polishing sentences, but found it much harder to see the book's architecture; for The Friday Gospels she used a sheet of wallpaper and mapped out the story's timeline in advance.
Asked about how they hoped their books would be perceived in terms of faith and the literary landscape, Jenn said she would be happy if readers saw faith as "more complicated, dangerous and beautiful" as a result of reading her novel, while for Peggy it was the aspect of faith reflected in ecstatic worship and a longing for the connection with the divine which she hoped to bring into focus in Amity & Sorrow.
Both novelists were charming, funny, entertaining and thought-provoking, and the audience seemed delighted to have spent an illuminating hour in their company.
The event which this morning opened the adults' programme at this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival was Kate Atkinson in conversation with Jenny Brown. To begin with a word on the chair, and in Jenny Brown - herself the first director of the Book Festival, and now a respected literary agent - we had the perfect 'intelligent reader' and gracious inquisitor.
Kate Atkinson really needs no introduction on these pages, but she was appearing today to talk about her most recent novel, the stunning Life After Life, described by Jenny Brown as her most ambitious book and a "dizzying, dazzling one" at that. It's a novel which follows its central character from birth to death, but far from being a straightforward linear narrative it looks at a series of alternative fates and a range of permutations of choices, decisions, events and moments which dictate and define the course of a life or lives. From her birth one snowy night in February 1910, Ursula Todd lives through the major events of the 20th. century but does so again and again on parallel paths, a range of 'what ifs' and accretions deepening her story, each one hardening and strengthening her in some way, each one showing the fine line between living and dying, each success predicated on an earlier failure of some sort.
Kate read a passage from near the beginning of the book, one which introduces the reader to the Todd family home, Fox Corner, a place seen as idyllic and ideal. This is Edwardian England in its 'golden afternoon', the halcyon days before the Great War changed so much, though as the story moves on, it's the Second World War and in particular the Blitz which provides "the dark, beating heart" of the book. Asked about her fascination with this later period, Kate explained that during her childhood (she was born in 1951) the war was in the very recent past, and was a subject of fascination and excitement to her, if of rather different significance to those who had lived through it. Her immersive reading on the subject informs and soundly underpins much of the novel.
A considerable part of the discussion was given over to Ursula's repeated lives, especially with reference to the book's structure and to Kate's own predilections in writing. She likes endings, she says - and she gives herself many to play with here - and in particular she likes a "symphonic crescendo of endings", a form which allows for the neatly finished as well as the open situation or unanswered question. She wrote the book sequentially, and having established her premise early on she felt secure in the structure and worked (with a storyboard) as the shape of the book dictated. Incidentally, she says she is "not a natural plotter", and finds plotting inhibits flow in writing.
Asking about her readership, a gentleman pointed out that the majority of the audience were female, but Kate said that while more women than men are readers and more women than men typically attend literary events, she had no specific group in mind when writing: "I write for myself," she said, "and when the book is done, it's everybody's".
As to whether she missed her characters once she'd killed them off, Kate admitted that of course she became fonder of some than of others but she most upset herself - in the writing of this book - by the deaths of the dogs who are the Todd family pets. "It's very important to have dogs in novels."
If you haven't yet read Life After Life I'd urge you to do so - it's marvellously original (even if, when asked about 'echoes' of the various alternative endings in The French Lieutenant's Woman Kate modestly said that there was nothing new in writing), and beautifully, pleasingly complex; it is, just as Jenny Brown said, "dizzying and dazzling", and it was a great pleasure to hear Kate talk about it.
One characteristic which I look for in a novel is integrity, as in wholeness and consistency, and if it's lacking then for me that can undermine the whole book.
The Night Rainbow
by Claire King, which I read and raved about early in the year, certainly has integrity; it also has a very distinctive voice and a charm to it that truly makes it stand out. The book has just come out in paperback, and to mark that I'm delighted to welcome Claire here today to tell us a little about how and where she writes.
Claire grew up in Yorkshire and now lives in France with her husband and daughters; The Night Rainbow is her first book.
Claire, please tell us about your writing desk or table: is it a special piece of furniture or just
a convenient surface? And the room in which you work - a dedicated study, or a
corner you've carved out of another room in the house?
I don’t have my own writing room. I’d love to, but we haven’t
anywhere that I can steal for myself, so I’m a rather peripatetic writer. I have
a little blue folding table that I move around the house depending on if the
children are at home and where they are playing. It also depends which room is
warmest (in winter) or coolest (in summer).
Today I am writing under a parasol on the terrace, which is nice.
As well as writing at home, I travel a lot for ‘day job’ work, so
I write often on trains or in hotel rooms or restaurants if I’m eating alone.
you ever purposely go to other writing locations for inspiration or improved
I walk every day, before I write. It clears my head of the
conversations I’ve had with my family around the breakfast table and somehow it
gets my mind in the right creative mood. I consider this to be part of writing,
even if I’m not actually getting any words down as I go. I went on a writing retreat weekend once. It was an absolute
treat and I got a huge amount of work done. I found it incredibly productive, being
removed from the place where other life happens, and inspiring to have a fresh
environment to notice. The company of other writers is also a wonderful boost.
typically sits on your desk? Piles of books for reference/a dictionary or thesaurus?
Family photographs? Special objects? Can you work with 'clutter' around you or
do you need clear space?
Wherever I write I need it to be clean. My house is not clean,
but I insist before I sit down to write that at least the little space around me
is tidy. I do have an actual desk, but it’s covered with administration,
paperwork, banking and tax and business stuff. I find having all that close by
a huge distraction. On or by my writing table, as well as my laptop or the
notebook/manuscript I’m working on, I have a reference thesaurus, a mug for tea
or coffee, my headphones for music and the Owl of Writing, who gives me hard
you always to listen to music while you’re working or do you sometimes prefer
silence? Do you need to be shut away with a virtual 'do not disturb' sign on
the door, or can you get on happily with the usual interruptions of phone,
doorbell, other people in the house, and so on?
The only doors in our house are on bedrooms, the bathroom and
the pantry, so I don’t actually have a door I can close. This is not a silent
house, it’s a house full of activity, conversation and laughter and I wouldn’t
change that for the world. So I listen to music to create my own story bubble. The
headphones are my ‘do not disturb’ sign in effect, and I always announce to
everyone who’s home that I’m about to go ‘into my garret’. Everyone is used to that now and respects it (usually), which is
great because when I’m interrupted by any kind of conversation it takes me a
while to get back into the writing ‘zone’ – pulling me out of my character’s
world. It does happen though. As you say there are always phone calls, urgent
questions or arguments to resolve. When that happens I make that time to put on
the kettle or bung in a load of laundry (prosaic I know) and stretch my eyes.
Better to use the interruption as a catalyst for a break rather than get grumpy
Do you write in
longhand first, or make notes/plans that way, or do you work directly on the
computer? If the former, do you have a favourite notebook and pen, or does any scrap of paper serve the purpose? Do you use a pinboard or whiteboard or similar, either for displaying notes and reminders, sketching out plot points and structure, showing location photographs or other visual cues to characters or interiors, etc.?
I’m not a huge planner, so what tends to come to me first are characters, ideas, situations or even just snippets of voice, and I write them down or dictate them into my phone, wherever I am. I always carry something to catch these things because they often form the essence of the story, which comes later. I don’t have fetish pens or paper, there’s enough going on to get in the way of writing without me complicating things further!
I sometimes use post-it notes, coloured pens and huge pieces of paper, when I’m wrangling something knotty, but the vast majority of my time is spent either writing on my laptop using Scrivener (where I keep visual clues electronically), or attacking a print-off with a red pen.
What tends to distract you most when you're supposed to be writing?
I distract myself. With mind-puppies. I wrote a blog post on it here.
If you could tell us a little about what's currently 'on the desk', i.e. your work-in-progress, I'd love to know, as I for one am very much looking forward to your next book.
It’s working title is Candice. It’s an existential love story, primarily narrated by a man who lives on a boat. I can’t really say much more because I’ve not handed it over to my agent yet. I’m still editing it myself (draft 8, 9, 10…not sure), but I do think it’s time to get some outside editorial advice now.
Since The Night Rainbow was published, what would you say were the best, most rewarding aspects of the writer's life, and what are the downsides, if any?
By far the most rewarding aspect has been the wonderful response of readers to The Night Rainbow. It’s enormously gratifying to know that I’ve managed to move so many people, engage them and delight them through a story. Every time I hear from someone who loved the book it makes my heart leap. I wanted this so much that I don’t really have any downsides to mention. It would feel picky. What I have noticed though is that once you’re being published there are a whole new raft of demands on your time – as well as making and approving edits, reviewing copy and artwork etc there are also PR articles to propose and write and sometimes events to prepare for and attend…and you are still expected to be cracking on with the next book. Meanwhile the day job and family life hasn’t gone away!
Finally, by spending many hours 'at the writing desk' you have launched your career - what advice would you give to aspiring writers?
I’d say don’t be an aspiring writer, be a writer. Write every day. Observe things you wouldn’t otherwise have noticed and write these things down, make stories. Don’t concentrate on publication, concentrate on practising and improving. Meet other writers, in real life or online. Enter competitions. And for goodness sake, read lots of books!
It's been a great pleasure to have Claire as my special guest and to have a glimpse of her writing desk en plein air! I have no compunction about linking again to my post on The Night Rainbow, and to pointing out that the book is currently a snip in both paperback and Kindle editions - if you don't already know it do look out for it.
Finally today, here are some other lovely authors 'at the writing desk', or in the case of the last on the list, 'at the sewing table':