The importance of ‘distance’

I’ve been reminded the last few days how being in unfamiliar surroundings has often been inspiring for my writing. I can’t count the number of times that first lines came to me while travelling alone. The first line of my Journey Prize short-listed story, ‘Sightseeing,’ came on a solitary visit to Niagara Falls. A woman asked me the question that I later used to open the story. I found her intriguing, and began to imagine who she might be and what her history was. The short fiction unwound from that moment.
http://andrewsmithwrites.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/SightseeingSitePDF.pdf

At present I’m spending time in Maine, U.S.A. Not for the best of reasons, I’m visiting a seriously ill cousin, which means that in between hospital visits I’m spending time in the unfamiliar milieu of the ocean-side town of Portland. Yesterday I was snoozing in the sun on a beach (relief between hospital visits), when I heard a shrill voice shout, “Dad, Dad, I found a dead hermit crab!” I opened my eyes to see an extended family comprising of two mothers, five kids of varying ages from 2 to 10, and a rather harried looking father. One of the mothers said, “Examine it carefully Byron, but don’t touch it with your fingers.” The other mother said,”What the hell else would he touch it with, for Heaven’s sake?” My mind went into overdrive. In my story the man would be a Mormon (not uncommon in the U.S.A.). The women are two of his wives, fiercely competitive. I might tell the story from the kid’s point of view, making his childhood seem normal until he goes to school and discovers his family are far from what society considers ‘normal.’

I doubt I’d have had the same flight of fancy lying in the familiar surroundings of my local beach at home. In my case I find the ‘distance’ that travel provides me is the objectivity every writer needs to kick-start effective story-telling. It doesn’t seem to be the case for all writers. Alice Munro, recent Nobel Prize winner, sets almost all of her stories in the rather remote part of Ontario where she lives. But I think she gains ‘distance’ from the shifts in time she invariably includes. Showing her characters’ past alongside their present provides the objectivity needed to reveal their souls.

A classic example of objectivity in short fiction is Raymond Carver’s story Cathedral. In the story the narrator meets a blind man. The new experience gives him the ‘distance’ needed to evoke new and unsettling emotions. The conclusion to Cathedral is a mind-blowing and brilliant illustration of how objectivity — the ability to step outside our lives — can be a transformative experience.
http://www.giuliotortello.it/ebook/cathedral.pdf

It’s clear that objectivity is a necessary element for effective story-telling. It might appear an oxymoron, but in order to get inside a subject the writer needs to be well outside, looking in.

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Plotless Politicians

One can’t help but think that the world would be a better place if politicians were forced to study plot development. They always seem surprised that unfortunate things happen as a result of their policies, when fiction writers could have told them exactly what screw-ups were sure to ensue.

We only have to look at history for examples. The most obvious cause-and-effect phenomena that politicians over the centuries seem to have been particularly clueless about is their creation of new countries. Any fiction writer would have known that a recipe for conflict is to throw together opposing parties, no matter how large the common area. Look what’s happened since the 1885 Berlin Conference, when much of Africa was carved up by European colonial powers with total disregard of the languages and cultures of peoples encompassed by newly-drawn borders. Different tribes with distinct territories may have previously fought one another, but they rarely engaged in the horrendous day-to-day conflicts that happen as a result of being forced to live in a shared country. The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 created nine new countries, many of which subsequently suffered internal conflict between different factions, the former Yugoslavia being the most extreme example. In 1947, when British imperialists split India into two distinct countries — present-day India and Pakistan (now Islamic Republic of Pakistan and People’s republic of Bangladesh) — they may have thought they were doing a little better by basing their borders on district-based Hindu or Muslim majorities. However, what’s the betting a good fiction writer would have said, “That’s still going to leave a million or more Muslims living in the new, supposedly Hindu, India. That’ll be a problem.” And it was, there was a huge refugee crisis as Muslims rushed to the new Pakistan. Many of those left behind were slaughtered in the riots that followed Indian independence. A fiction writer might have concluded that, after centuries of fairly peaceful co-existence, it was better to leave well enough alone.

And as for colonialism … any novelist could have seen that if your characters storm into a place and steal what they want, rather than trade fairly, there’s going to be big trouble. Especially if you add insult to injury by imposing your colonial characters’ belief systems and laws on the people from whom they stole. It’s a terrific device for creating an explosion of acrimonious rebellion later. I have to admit that it would take a particularly scheming novelist to invent a scenario where acquiescent characters embrace the religions and laws of their colonialist ‘masters,’ believing themselves, therefore, to be equal. But then, when they come to live in the ‘Mother Land,’ expecting to be embraced as the partners they believed themselves to be, they’re automatically treated as lesser, unwelcome mortals by the natives, who have little comprehension of colonial practices. While researching ‘The Speech,’ I came across a photo of a Sikh protesting the ban on wearing a turban at work. His sign read “We’re here because you were there.” Enough said.

As for recent history … what did Margaret Thatcher think would happen when she took away people’s livelihoods (miners, steelworkers, shipbuilders) with no attempt whatsoever to find new ways for them to put a roof over their heads or food in their mouths? Any writer worth their while could have predicted the ensuing civil unrest, riots, and general social malaise. As for the resulting and ongoing reverse Robin Hood policies — steal from the poor and give to the rich … if I were writing the novel I’d be trying to decide if the storming of Parliament should be this chapter or the next. Hang on though, 10 Downing Street first. But wait, I see that scene was written this week.

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Volunteering: salve for the soul

Nine months ago I was so dispirited by the growing preponderance of right wing extremism in the world — particularly the burgeoning of Donald Trump’s popularity — that I decided I had to take steps to stop myself descending into a morass of despondency. More as an act of rebellion than of compassion, I started volunteering at a refugee centre here in Britain. I’ve decided to write about it in the hope that others may decide to do something similar. It really does help dispel one’s feeling of helplessness, and, of course, somebody benefits from your act of selfish selflessness.

Stepping over the threshold of a simple doorway, you leave the busy square behind you. It’s a startling transition from day-lit cacophony outside to the static scene of waiting figures — sitting, slumped, sprawled — on folding chairs lining a corridor, starkly lit by flickering strip lights. Someone slumbers, a hoodie obscures their face. Others gaze resignedly at faded walls. But some break into shy smiles as you approach. One, who you once helped to complete an interminable government form, thrusts out a hand to be shaken. Grins. Calls you by your name. That’s when you first feel it — the gentle flush of gratification.

Another glow, dissimilar but connected, makes itself felt when you meet and greet fellow volunteers. French words seem to describe it best: bonhomie, esprit de corps. There are some — different types — you’d never normally meet in your so-called ‘everyday’ life, but you’re more than glad to rub shoulders with them now. To be on a team with such people. To share a common goal, if only for that day.

Duties assigned, you go about your business. You carry out the chores allocated to you, often different depending on the week and the need. You glean a glimmer of self-satisfaction when, from past experience, you know what to do: not fill cups of tea too full in case they slop on the floor; ask questions clearly, kindly, when you register new people; judge who needs help with form-filling and who might be better encouraged to try it themselves; how to arrange donated clothes for a client’s best access. And more. Sometimes, regularly, you learn something new, and you experience a small revelation — ‘ah, that’s the way it’s done.’

What gives these ordinary activities a deeper meaning is the more-often-than-not change of expression on the face of a client with whom you’re interacting. Trepidation, suspicion, skepticism, occasionally aggression, can sometimes be found in a client’s eyes, even as an appeal is made. You’ve learnt to weigh the desire to help with a dose of pragmatism. Can you — any of you — help? You’re relieved when you usually realize that if not you, so-and-so can do something. Whether you help or are able to reassure that help can be given, the eyes soon change. They relax. Become softer. And then, when an advisor appointment is made, or an English lesson arranged, or a plate of food served, or the right shirt is found, or a form filled in, relief is evident — for both of you. If not voiced, gratitude is invariably obvious. You feel the flush of gratification more strongly than earlier.

At the end of the day, as you push your way towards home, you feel lighter than when you arrived that morning. You know — consciously or not — that someone breathes a little easier because of your effort. Also, selfishly, you feel somewhat less oppressed by the daily onslaught of contemptible politics and bigoted media. Your day may have represented an infinitesimal act of compassion in the scheme of things, but add tens, hundreds, thousands of such acts, put them all together, and you’re secure in the knowledge that they make a truly discernible difference.

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Dealing with PPD (Post Publication Depression)

Yet-to-be-published authors on the long and winding road to finding an agent and/or a publisher might like to stop reading now. This whingeing blog by a whiner of a published writer is likely to annoy, irritate, and piss you off. If you do reach the end with some hair left after tugging at the roots with rage, please leave me an abusive comment. A good tongue-lashing about my privileged position is probably exactly the therapy I need.

Meanwhile, it’s time to ‘share,’ with the reassuring knowledge that I’m not the only writer suffering. You only need to Google ‘post publication depression’ to find pages and pages of entries, from deadly serious confessionals to hysterically humorous posts. Like most things farcical, the condition has the potential for unbelievable demoralization and unthinkable descent into dire disaster (think Donald Trump and Theresa May). Unlike our politicians however, we are in some control of our mental state (but please keep voting, every voice matters). In theory the published first-novelist ought to be able to get back on the horse, plonk a bum on a chair, and start writing again, which is, by all accounts, the best antidote to PPD (I’m using the initialism in the hope it’ll be widely adopted, like PTSD). So why is it so difficult?

Most writers say things like, “But I love writing!” And we do. But is it because we are conscious only of the joy of germination? Is it that hidden deep in our limbic system (the part of the brain where memory is stored) we have data that tells us that the process of writing the first novel was more demanding than an ascent on Everest, but we can’t quite remember the rigour of the climb? That, despite protestations to the contrary, it took excruciating effort for however-many months — years — to craft all those eloquent sentences and to execute pages of transforming revisions? We’re in denial about the pain, yet we ‘know’ on some subconscious level that the process was brutal and exhausting. Thus we’ll go to extraordinary lengths to avoid sitting at that damn chair in front of the torture device of keyboard and screen. Add to this for the first-novel author the phenomenon of publication — which, let’s face it, for the vast majority is a huge anticlimax — and we have a force of human nature that’s virtually unbeatable.

Woah!! It’s at this point the unpublished author might want to poke me in the eye. Anticlimax, for fuck’s sake?! You have an actual book, printed, and with a properly designed cover. It’s appeared in book shops, been favourably reviewed by book bloggers, praised on Amazon by friends and strangers alike. You’ve done public readings to which people actually came, you appeared at a literary festival. What the hell is wrong with you? Good question, and one which can only be competently answered after long sessions with a trained therapist. But in the absence of that, here goes …

You germinate a story, you breathe life into it, you nurture it over much time — a process that takes up absolutely all your energy and every thinking moment — until it’s a fully formed being ready to be released into the world. Which it is. And yes, there are some wonderful reactions (see above). But between these shining moments are long periods of time when absolutely nothing happens, zilch, nada. Compared to the all-involving effort of writing, which consumed every waking moment, you feel in a kind of limbo, worrying neurotically how your baby is faring out there in the big bad world. So you do everything that is expected of you to fill the void, and that you hope will nurture your creation. You Tweet, you Facebook, you write blogs (like this one), you open an Instagram account, you tweak your web site, make a book trailer. Anything to fill the dreadful (as in full-of-dread) feeling that your baby is being ignored. And, sure, you garner some good press by one of the largest circulation newspapers in U.K. — but it’s not the mainstream media, who studiously ignore it. Your publisher, who clearly considers your book to be brilliant, enters it in two prestigious literary prizes — but it fails to make either of the long lists.

And this is when, if you’re lucky, you have an important revelation, which is that anticlimax and disillusion (with depression snapping at their heels) come only after unrealistically high, and illusionary, expectation. The Speech was one of thousands of novels published in UK in 2016. It was a tad of a tall order to think that every daily in Britain would give the book a glowing review, to believe that literary prizes would stack up like so many ribbons at a country fair. You realize it’s downright self-destructive to sit around worrying about your baby. No point in blaming anyone and everyone that your book isn’t at the top of every bestseller list. You realize you can only do what you can to help it along, but fretting is certainly not going to help. You tell yourself — honestly — that you wrote a good novel of which you’re proud. And you consider that its life continues. Who knows what heights it may still reach? Meanwhile, the next novel is calling. Deep breath. Here goes … oh, and thanks for listening.

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All the best writers are ‘touched’

It would be folly to suggest that all fiction writers are mentally unstable, but the preponderance of authors with ‘problems’ does appear to be endless. Sylvia Plath: bipolar. Jonathan Swift, Emily Bronte, and John Milton: all thought to suffer from Asperger’s. Herman Melville, Virginia Woolf: chronic depressives. Ezra Pound: formally diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder. Ernest Hemingway: depression, bipolar disorder and, later, psychosis. Scratch the psyche of most fiction authors and you’ll reveal emotional flaws and mood disorders, often diagnosable mental illness.

You will also most likely find childhoods rife with loss and loneliness. Many writers lost one and sometimes two parents early in childhood — Swift, Defoe, Byron, Keats, Coleridge, Hawthorne, Melville, Thackeray, the Brontës, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Poe, Tolstoy, and Conrad. ‘Wolf Hall’ writer, Hilary Mantel, had a father who left the family home when she was a young girl, never to be seen again. Other authors experience childhood loss of a different kind. Byron, Melville, Dickens, Joyce, Yeats, and Shakespeare were all thrust into crushing poverty at an early age through the misfortunes of their fathers. Shelley and Orwell were both banished to bleak and brutal boarding schools for most of their childhoods.

The point of all this being that literary genius is much more likely to spring from unhappiness and hardship than from joy and comfort. Stress and unhappiness in youth seem to help in development of the fantasy and imagination necessary for effective fiction. Ian Mcewan is quoted as having said about the ‘edgy’ short stories that propelled him to fame, “A lot of my terror of things was in those stories—my terror of not making full or rich emotional relationships.”

I’ve always considered myself to be a fairly happy, well-adjusted person, but, knowing what I know now about the mental health of successful authors, I almost wish I were less sunny, darker. I troll my memory to come up with some skeleton in the cupboard that might make me an effective author. I did grow up with a quite severely depressive mother, who was often extremely distant. My father, a pharmacist, worked twelve hours a day, six days a week in a chemist shop and was rarely at home. My only brother, who I now believe to have suffered from depression from an early age, went through long periods of being ‘difficult’ when we were growing up. My fondest childhood memories are of escapes from the family home. I often took long bicycle rides on my own. Solitude was something I treasured.

I think I’ll stop now. That might be enough unhappy memories. And I try telling myself there must be loads of well-adjusted, perfectly ‘normal’ writers who are highly accomplished. But despite the inconclusiveness of the theory, it is undeniable that many prominent writers and poets have suffered from mental instability. In the words of Lord Byron, “We of the craft are all crazy. Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched.”

Comments, and personal accounts of writers’ ‘touched’ personalities, are welcome.

Further reading:
Shakespeare’s Tremor and Orwell’s Cough
The medical lives of famous writers.

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A Perfect Storm

The tempest raging around ‘cultural appropriation’ in fiction.

Last autumn, just before my novel, The Speech, was published, Lionel Shriver — British resident, and American author of ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ — scared the hell out of me. She gave a speech at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival that transformed a fairly minor storm of disagreement into a raging tempest of vitriolic backbiting. Her address was titled Fiction and Identity Politics — in plainspeak: issues surrounding the creating of characters in novels that aren’t of the author’s colour, race, sexuality, religion, or … you name it.

From the moment I decided to put two black Jamican immigrant characters into The Speech, I’d anguished about whether, as a white Anglo, I a) had the right to do so, and b) could accurately and sensitively portray them. The reason Shriver’s address scared the bejesus out of me was the extreme acrimony of reaction, which made it clear there were legions who would believe I had no right to write about anybody other than white males like myself, and who would be gagging to find even a hint of misrepresentation in the portrayal of anybody ‘different.’ Publishing a book can be an incredibly nervous-making act of self exposure in the first place (more about this in a future blog), and I suffered fairly crippling moments of misgiving in the days leading up to publication, imagining being pilloried for my inept — maybe even racist — attempts to ‘write’ Jamaican.

But a calmer frame of mind prevailed after I realized part of the problem with the brouhaha in Brisbane had been the manner in which Shriver put her case. She started out in a measured enough fashion talking about authors ‘stepping into other people’s shoes, and trying on their hats.’ Nice metaphor. But then things went downill. She talked about well-considered books — some being classics — that feature characters of different race, sexuality, etc. from their author. Trouble is, she listed so many examples that it began to feel she was wielding a baseball bat at the heads of what she later described as ‘cultural police.’ She went on to use negative and incendiary terms to describe anyone who dared suggest that authors moderate their portrayal of ‘others.’ I obviously wasn’t there to hear the derogatory tone of voice she doubtless used, but I can imagine it when I read an account of reaction to the speech from a woman who walked out mid-way. Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a mechanical engineer, social advocate, and writer, described Shriver’s speech as “a poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension.”

Both Shriver’s speech and Abdel-Magied’s account hold interesting, intelligent, and legitimate points about a fascinating subject. Unfortunately they’re eclipsed by the rancour of the emotional minefield surrounding so-called ‘cultural appropriation.’

For my part I decided if I included black characters in The Speech — how could I not in a novel with racism as one of its themes — I’d do everything possible to portray my Jamaican characters as honestly as I possibly could. As a student I’d been befriended by a Jamaican, a fellow labourer on the building site where I worked during college holidays. Throughout that summer he and I worked together and drank together. I spent weekends with his family in Handsworth, which at the time was a West Indian enclave of Birmingham. Before that, I’d worked Saturdays on a market stall in Wolverhampton, where at least half the customers were West Indian. I felt I already knew something of Jamaicans in Britain. I supplemented this with copious research into Jamaican music, history, geography, and general culture. My biggest worry was reproducing the Jamaican patois I’d heard as a young man. I researched the hell out if it on YouTube and other media. I sent my first draft to Jamaican author, Colin Channer, to read. He was generous and complimentary, but recommended I send a final draft to Jamaican poet, editor, and patois expert, Velma Pollard. On the whole she approved, but made several suggestions of language and phrasing, which I, of course, incorporated.

My point being this: I agree with Shriver that writers should have — and need — the freedom to portray any character, no matter that person’s colour, nationality, sexuality, physicality, etc. in order to produce effective fiction. BUT to do so respectfully, as Abdel-Magied begs of authors in the privileged position of being able to choose about whom they write.

Comments very welcome!

Here is a transcript of Lionel Shriver’s speech:
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/13/lionel-shrivers-full-speech-i-hope-the-concept-of-cultural-appropriation-is-a-passing-fad

Here is Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s account of walking out of Shrivers’ address:
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/10/as-lionel-shriver-made-light-of-identity-i-had-no-choice-but-to-walk-out-on-her

This is Colin Channer’s web site:
http://www.colinchanner.com

This is Velma Pollard reading wonderfully one of her poems::
http://www.poetryarchive.org/poet/velma-pollardhttp://www.poetryarchive.org/poet/velma-pollard

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Place as character in a novel

Often a place is as strong a character in a novel as any human. For example, it’s impossible to imagine Bronte novels set outside of the West Yorkshire Pennines, an area now referred to as ‘Bronte country.’ The town of Rye in E. F. Benson’s books is easily as vivid as his irrepressible characters Mapp and Lucia, although he called the place Tilling in a thin disguise. Locations can inspire writers like nothing else. Dickens, who used London over and again as a character in his work, described the city as a Magic Lantern, a popular entertainment of the Victorian era, which projected images from slides. London scenes fired his imagination. He once said, ‘a day in London sets me up and starts me’, but outside of the city, ‘the toil and labour of writing, day after day, without that magic lantern is IMMENSE!!’

These writers, and many others, used first-hand experience of a place. The Bronte sisters spent their whole lives surrounded by the moors featured in their books. Benson lived in Rye, where he also served as mayor. Dickens lived in London until he died, apart from early years in Kent and short periods spent in Europe. They all wrote what they saw. Not to say that simply being in a place is enough for a competent novelist. The Brontes, Benson, and Dickens brought writerly skills to bear when choosing the exact appropriate location — a forbidding valley, a claustrophobic living room, or a dark alley — to enhance a scene or a character’s mood. They also used the way in which seasons, weather, and time of day, affect a place and give it atmosphere and mood. But they did all have the advantage of writing what they saw. Which is not the case for the writer of historical fiction.

Historical fiction authors use place as much as writers of contemporary fiction, if not more. Locations in historical fiction are often the foundations on which narrative is built. How a place looks, smells, feels is as important as how characters are dressed, speak, or as the food they eat. Locations are likely to appear very differently to today — described effectively they can skewer a period to the page for the reader. The hours of necessary research, sometimes onerous, are always worthwhile. Hilary Mantel, author of Booker Prize winner, Wolf Hall, has said, ‘If you don’t like research and don’t consider it important then it’s better, in my view, to leave the historical novel alone.’ In the recently published The Spanish Knight’s Secret by Peter Christopher, 16th century Malta — in particular Fort St. Elmo during the Great Siege of Malta — is so skillfully portrayed that the reader is transported there, almost against her will. Although familiar with present-day Malta, Christopher dug deep to find the details that bring Fort St. Elmo of 1565 so alive.

Many authors of more recent historical fiction — of which I count myself — also use location in a novel as strongly as any living characters. But memory, rather than research, is often the key for recent historical fiction. Laurie Lee’s 1959 novel Cider With Rosie, was based on Lee’s youth in the village of Slad, Gloucestershire, in the period soon after the First World War. The village and surroundings are lovingly portrayed, obviously from his recollections of childhood. The West Midlands town of Wolverhampton is as much a character as any person in my novel, The Speech. But it’s the Wolverhampton of 1968 that’s evoked, during a period when I was a student there. I was able to draw on strong memories of the town — pubs, streets, shops, the college I attended, statuary, municipal buildings, houses and flats — to evoke the Wolverhampton that would have been familiar to Enoch Powell and the other, imaginary, characters in the novel. I was even able to describe the smell of the local brewery, which pervaded the town from time to time. All of which were building blocks to a vivid representation of place. And, as we know, evocative portrayal of place is essential in historical fiction, whether set in the 1960s, medieval era, or earlier.

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