Elizabeth Jane Howard, Slipstream and the Cazalets: a writer tells her own story

IMG_3078 (3)Before I got started on Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet books I thought they might be too cosy and cream bun-ish for me. But then enough people sang their praises to prompt me to try them, and they turned out to be much sharper and darker than I’d anticipated.

Yes, there are dresses and dinners, but also: sex, sexuality, secrets, infidelity, betrayal, loyalty, unrequited love, requited love, grief, unwanted pregnancies, children who long for lost or absent parents, marriages of all kinds, the tension between duty and desire, and the long friendships of cousins. All that plus a portrait of an extended family as a microcosm of social change before, during and after the Second World War.

So now I have just one Cazalet book left, All Change. It’s always rather melancholy to approach the end of a series. After the first four Cazalet books I read Slipstream, EJH’s autobiography, and that’s what I wanted to blog about. Any writer’s autobiography is of potential interest to anyone who writes or is interested in writing, and this one offered up numerous insights that caught my eye.

Comfort reading… but not

Slipstream is comfort reading, of a kind – up to a point. It’s the story of a woman who survived acute maternal guilt and numerous difficult though interesting lovers to become what she wanted to be – a writer. There are lots of other writers in its pages, too, in various roles and relationships, including Kingsley Amis (to whom EJH was married for many years) and Martin Amis, her stepson – she gave him Pride and Prejudice and declined to tell him how it ended, so he had to read it for himself; he encouraged her to follow through on her idea for the Cazalet books. Here’s some of what Slipstream has to say about intuition, art, war, love, learning, the work and rewards of writing, age and truth.

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On intuition, art, the war years and learning

‘Premonitions bring with them a sense of powerlessness and guilt – what can be the point of even half knowing something about which one seems able to do nothing?’

‘To sit for a painter was even better than being asked to turn pages of music for a pianist: it was being a kind of associate member of the arts, and I could think of nothing more desirable than that.’

‘The war hung over our heads, but we hardly referred to it. Glass fell reluctantly from the roof of the school studio, and was kicked aside by earnest, sandalled feet… We were selfish, preoccupied and, I think now, we simply didn’t understand what was going on, as we never considered it long enough to find out. Behind it all was the feeling that we’d be dragged into it eventually so we had a kind of greedy desperation to get every drop out of every second of the time we had left to pursue our own ends.’

‘Walking home, it was clear how very little I knew and how little I understood of anything I’d thought I knew. Even learning to type wouldn’t help me with his feelings, which meant that either education, as I’d thought of it, wasn’t education at all, or it was merely a preliminary, at its best, for something that was going to last for the rest of my life.’

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On the preoccupation with love and wanting to write

‘Another reason that my novel took so long was my preoccupation with love. Love seemed to me the most desirable, the most important of human emotions. As far as sexual love was concerned, I was older but not much wiser. But every other aspect of love – intimacy, affection, being first in each other’s lives – I wanted, as much as I wanted to write. The problem of how to combine them was far in the future. I thought that if I could get love right, everything else would follow naturally. I don’t write this to imply I was unusual; most women feel the same in varying degrees, I think.’

‘Furthermore I was lazy with my writing; I’d not yet learned the kind of discipline necessary for serious work.’

‘There is a great difference between wanting to be a writer and wanting to write, and this isn’t always obvious in the salad days of a writer’s creative life, and sometimes never.’

‘I knew by now that a number of people regarded me as beautiful. But much in the way that rich people don’t want to be loved simply because they are rich, I didn’t want to be loved simply for my appearance…. I simply felt I was making a hash of it, and underlying that foggy conclusion lay the dread that I wasn’t anything else. I still had the desire to write, but depression leaks energy – like pain – and all that summer I couldn’t write.’

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On the strange feeling of finishing a book and the knowledge of love

‘The feeling after completing a novel is for me like no other. It’s as though with the last sentence, I have released a great weight that falls away, leaving me so empty and light that I can float out of myself and look down at the pattern of the work I’ve made. I can see all at once what I have been pursuing in fragments for so long. It’s a timeless moment, a kind of ecstasy – a state of unconditional love – that has nothing whatever to do with merit or criticism. Of course it goes, dissolves into melancholy and a sense of loss. Parting with people one has been living with for so long and know so intimately is poignant; they are more lost to you than anyone you meet in life. They remain crystallized exactly where you left them. Altogether, it’s an occasion that makes one feel very strange for some time afterwards.’

‘I began to understand that love is neither a conditional business nor an ever-fixed mark by arrangement. People always know somewhere inside themselves if they are not loved. No gestures, talk, conciliation, pronouncements can prevail over that deep instinctual knowledge.’

‘This trip was a farcical failure… I was supposed to give a reading at Brentano’s bookshop at seven pm. When I arrived there was no audience.’

(of Doris Lessing) ‘We went shopping together, and I wanted a rather expensive jacket, and she said, “Go on. You’ve just finished your book, you can have a treat.”‘

On age, happiness and truth

‘…it’s often difficult to feel your age. Apart from the fact I wasn’t sure what this entailed, in many ways I didn’t feel my age. Like one’s appearance or handwriting, one retains an earlier impression of oneself and takes it for granted, no longer sees what one is.’

‘Nearly everyone I’d known who’d had cancer had died of it in the end. It was extraordinary how all my values shifted – as though I’d shaken a kaleidoscope and all the little segments, though still there, had made an unrecognisable pattern. Unhappy, lonely or a failure I might have been, but even those ingredients of my life now seemed precious – even desirable.’

‘On the ninth morning, I had to go into town to buy food, and suddenly – walking down the street to my house – I lightened completely as though, without warning, I’d emerged from a heavy fog into clear sunlight. I felt extraordinarily, irrationally happy.’

‘Liars destroy the currency of all words: there was no single fragment of truth I could hang on to.’

‘I’ve slowly learned some significant things – perhaps most of all the virtue, the extreme importance of truth, which, it seems to me now, should be continually searched for and treasured when any piece of it is found.’

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What I’m reading: tales of the 60s, autism, trees, boarding-school, film stars… and more

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This is what I’ve been reading so far this year… The 60s novels are research for the book I’m writing at the moment – The Millstone (about single motherhood – the queues in doctor’s waiting rooms haven’t changed…) and Girls in their Married Bliss (woman friends, dodgy/awful men, funny and heartbreaking) – my first time reading Margaret Drabble and Edna O’Brien, appetite whetters both.

I’d already read the Vadim and Robert Evans autobiographies, Bardot, Deneuve, Fonda and The Kid Stays in the Picture; they’re in there for 60s research too. And for the Bob Evans line, ‘fool me once – more fool me, fool me twice – more fool you’, which I love but which is weirdly, tongue-twisterishly hard to get right. And for the scene in Vadim’s memoir where his three ex-wives, Brigitte Bardot, Annette Stroyberg and Jane Fonda, plus his ex-lover Catherine Deneuve, all end up by coincidence gathered round looking down at him on set in Paris when he’s floored by a broken shoulder.

Back in February I chaired an event with Jem Lester (Shtum) and Monica Wood (One in a Million Boy) at Dulwich Books – the proof copies of their novels are in the pile. Shtum is a gutsy, gutty, honest and tender portrayal of a single dad’s relationship with his non-verbal autistic son. The red spine is Monica Wood’s heartwarming and quirky One in a Million Boy, about a deadbeat(ish) dad, a superb old lady and a lost boy.

This is Paradise by Will Eaves (who is also a poet) is a finely observed study of a family falling apart and coming (more or less) together. I love a teen boarding-school story, and Friendly Fire is Patrick Gale’s, illustrated by his husband Aidan Hicks (fans of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, Charlotte Mendelson’s Almost English and Antonia White’s Frost in May – enjoy). Ali Shaw’s The Trees is a magical account of a quest through a world changed overnight; Patricia Duncker’s Hallucinating Foucault is an unnerving tale of literary obsession which grips like a thriller and convinces like the truth.

My proof of Maggie O’Farrell’s time-and-space-hopping love story This Must Be The Place, which features a film star heroine turned recluse, would be in the picture, but I lent it to a friend so it’s represented by the invitation to the launch do on top of the pile. Many memorable scenes, including an agonising one with a father and son waiting out a crisis in a dermatology clinic that I will forever think of in association with eczema. Also: brilliant 90s wedding.

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Right now, I’m reading Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes. It’s a big, brilliant, sometimes devastating and ultimately uplifting social history of autism. Much of it is shocking – here’s a glimpse of the chapter on ‘The Invention of Toxic Parenting’ (the theory that autism was caused by bad parents).

IMG_2125.JPGIt’s making me very grateful to be the parent of an autistic child here and now… I defy anyone to come to the end of the chapter on ‘What Sister Viktorine knew’ without a lump in the throat.

You can see a bit of discussion about the books on my FB page – especially Margaret Drabble.

 

 

In praise of Alan Garner: First Light

IMG_1960 (2)This beautiful volume is an anthology of tributes and personal responses to the work of Alan Garner, crowdfunded and published by Unbound, with contributions from writers, artists, historians, scientists and storytellers including Margaret Atwood, Stephen Fry, Ali Smith, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman and Rowan Williams, to name but a few. It’s full of illuminating things – read on for quotes that got me turning over page corners – and is exactly the right kind of book to dip into when you can’t sleep, or need taking out of yourself.

I got my copy of First Light at an event at Oxford Literary Festival (it was super-Oxfordy – held in the beautiful Divinity Hall). The event was chaired by Erica Wagner, who compiled and edited the book, in conversation with two of the contributors, Richard Ovenden and Neel Mukherjee. Alan Garner was sitting in the front row next to Rowan Williams – no pressure!

  • Find out more about The Blackden Trust – the educational charity set up by Alan and Griselda Garner that First Light will help fund

Margaret Atwood on the perils of the Full Moon Mall

‘“You have been trying on our skins,’ growled the raccoon, ‘and turn about is fair play. So now I will try on yours.”’

Bob Cywinski on the parallel between science and fiction

‘Both author and physicist seek to create an internally consistent model universe that can be poked and prodded with questions of “what if?”, and if our literary and scientific model universes respond in a way that is externally consistent with our observations of the real universe, we claim success.’

[I once gave a presentation on how to write a novel to a couple of software developers who made a similar point: it was, as a process, not all that different to what they did.]

Helen Dunmore on The Owl Service

‘Long before the phrase “post-traumatic stress” was common currency, Alan Garner explored in The Owl Service the way that intense, tragic events affect generations because they go on recurring in flashback, unresolved and invincible… The past must become truly the past, and it can only do so if there is a redemptive alteration of destructive patterns.’

[A true and also practical point, this. I remember being told that every cell in the human body regenerates every seven years or so. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t, but it’s an encouraging thought. Exposure to certain toxins can indelibly rewrite your genetic code, but – as far as I understand it – even that is a revision of potential and predisposition: it isn’t fate.]

Stephen Fry on being trusted

‘I believe that the first feeling that overwhelmed me was one of being trusted. At no stage did the writer of this story explain to me what I was supposed to feel, or what was the meaning of the story I was reading.’

Neil Gaiman on books that change you

‘There are moments without which we literally would not exist, we would not be ourselves: we would be other people, who would look the same, but with a different inner landscape, with different dreams and hopes and, most importantly, different ways of looking at the world… Reading Elidor was one of those moments for me.’

‘The freight of fantasy is the freight of the unrevealed. When it is at its most powerful, it shows us the world we know through another’s eyes, in a way that we can never unsee.’

Elizabeth Garner on being born alongside a book

‘The first evidence of my existence is not the usual photograph of mother and baby, cocooned in a hospital bed. Instead it is a series of numbers in the margins of a manuscript. My mother’s contraction times, set beside the emerging words of my father’s novel The Stone Book. I was on the page before I was in the world. But that’s just the start of the story.’

Joseph Garner on Othering

‘The internal conflict of Othering comes from the fear of being severed from our roots. Thus to come through the experience of Othering with a new sense of self, we have to go back to our roots and find a way to make peace, and to reconnect our new selves.’

Andrew Hodges on Alan Garner and Alan Turing

‘The meeting of the two Alans arose in 1951, simply as fellow amateur runners, rare in those days, spotting each other on the road… they found a meeting point in equal distances and speed over the Cheshire lanes.’

Bel Mooney on contradiction

‘He knows that Death is the electric current that animates all things.’

Neel Mukherjee on roots, anchoring and land

‘Here is something that I would come to recognise retrospectively as one of the great lessons of writing: there is nothing more universal than the particular, that the local is the world.’

Philip Pullman on Alan Garner on craftsmanship

‘There are traditions in every craft, by which the knowledge gained by our forebears is passed on – knowledge not just of how to hold a plane or sharpen a saw, but of how to evaluate the work and give it the attention it deserves. Garner’s grandfather, for example, a whitesmith, passed on that kind of wisdom to the young Alan.

He uttered two precepts. They are absolutes. The first was: “Always take as long as the job tells you, because it’ll be here when you’re not, and you don’t want folk saying, ‘What fool made this codge?’”

The second was worse: “If the other feller can do it, let him.” That is: seek until you find that within you that is your unique quality, and, having found it, pursue it to the exclusion of all else and without thought of cost.¹’

[¹Alan Garner, ‘Aback of Beyond’, in The Voice That Thunders. Daunting and rigorous, yes, but as good and fundamental advice for a writer as any you’ll find.]

Ali Smith on The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Alderley Edge

‘The edge of things is the natural habitat of the story.’

More about books, reading and writing

Patrick Gale and Polly Samson: seduction, loss, land and longing

A short list of books to turn to when you’re stressed

The writer as psychic: on twins and Sisterland

Benjamin Britten and three lessons in creativity

 

What I read in 2015: Ferrante, Patrick Gale and plenty more…

Patrick Gale and Ali Mercer at North Cornwall Book Festival

Photo: Dan Hall

2015 was my year of reading Patrick Gale. I read a few more of his novels as prep for interviewing him at North Cornwall Book Festival (lucky me): Little Bits of Baby, Rough Music and A Perfectly Good Man. I also looked back over his 2015 bestseller A Place Called Winter and was knocked out by it a second time, having first read a proof copy last year (yup – lucky me again).

Patrick Gale's novels

This was also the year I caught Ferrante fever – I read the first of the Neapolitan novels and know I’m in for a treat with the rest. Like Ferrante’s legions of other fans, I was drawn in and hooked fast by her brilliant depiction of the novel’s central female friendship, in all its ambiguous tenderness and competitiveness.

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It’s been a year for going along to literary events and coming back with books. I stocked up at North Cornwall Book Festival, which has dominated my reading in recent months – the tent may be down, the sand long since shaken out of our suitcases, but NCBF lives on… It was great to see Jenny Balfour Paul, Patricia Duncker and M J Carter speaking about their books, and an even more lasting pleasure to read them (Deeper than Indigo, Sophie and the Sibyl and The Strangler Vine, which I’m reading at the moment. All brilliant.)

books from North Cornwall Book Festival

Another star of the festival was Neel Mukherjee, whose novel The Lives of Others I read last year, when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. (Here’s what I read in 2014.)

The Lives of Others

On a blazing autumn day in October I went to see Patrick Gale and Polly Samson in conversation at Henley Literary Festival – a startlingly steamy event (for an afternoon in a sedate town hall.) Polly’s new book, The Kindness, is a cleverly constructed tale of love, deception and thwarted paternity, due out in paperback in March.

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Back in June, I spent a gloriously sunny evening in the courtyard garden of Mostly Books in Abingdon, listening to Laura Barnett talk about her twisty-turny, three-layered what-if narrative The Versions of Us. I also went along to see honorary Abingdon author Rebecca Wait (The Followers – a vivid and terrifying account of life as a teen inside a cult) at a panel event at Blackwell’s Oxford discussing whether novels can teach empathy.

In April, I went to Chipping Norton Literary Festival, where I missed out on Lee Child’s event but spotted him looking conspicuously tall and charismatic outside Jaffe and Neale. I saw Matt Haig (Reasons to Stay Alive – advice and insights on recovering from depression) in conversation with Cathy Rentzenbrink (The Last Act of Love – a memoir about her brother, who was left in a permanent vegetative state after a car accident, and the impact this had on the family: an unsparingly honest book that is as warm and tender as it is painful). I also saw Hannah Beckerman, Clare Mackintosh and Rowan Coleman speaking about mothers in fiction – and Richard and Judy!

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This was the year I discovered Molesworth, which I have been dipping into from time to time over the festive season. Whether you’re looking for eternal verities or merely hunting for something to cheer you up before you go back to work, you may find what you seek in the comprehensively misspelled collected works of this 1950s schoolboy… Turn to Gerald Scarfe’s illustrations of types of teacher and parent, or the sketch of a manager, and you’ll see what I mean.

Also, if you’re in need of amusement and haven’t yet discovered Nina Stibbe, it’s time to get your hands on Love, Nina and Man at the Helm. (You will never see turkey mince in the same way again.) I am very much looking forward to seeing Love, Nina on the telly (Nick Hornby has adapted it – Helena Bonham-Carter is in it). I’ll also be looking out for Patrick Gale’s two-part TV drama, Man in an Orange Shirt in 2016. (And when is Poldark back on? Really really soon I hope. January is loooooong.)

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I’ve read proof copies of two novels that are due out in 2016 (lucky me again): Sarah Duguid’s debut Look At Me, a sharp and suspenseful tale of sibling rivalry, and Monica Wood’s big-hearted One in a Million Boy. This is about an elderly woman trying to survive her way into the record books, a jobbing musician trying to compensate for his failings as a father, and the charming and unusual boy of the title, whose sudden disappearance draws together those he has left behind. Two to look out for!

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So what will I be reading in 2016? Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes is waiting, along with Patrick Gale’s A Sweet Obscurity and Friendly Fire, and I’d like to read more Penelope Fitzgerald – this year I read Offshore and as I’m working my way through in chronological order it’ll be Human Voices next.

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Also, I’ve lined up the autobiographies of Bob Evans and Roger Vadim (research – I’ve read both before), along with Eve Chase’s Black Rabbit Hall and the first of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles. Also on my wishlist: Patricia Duncker’s Hallucinating Foucault.

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I expect (and hope) I’ll discover many more new books and new authors. There are always surprises in the book store…

A big thank you to all the readers of this blog – here’s to happy reading and good times in 2016!

author Ali Mercer at North Cornwall Book Festival

What I read in 2015… the list

So here’s that rather long list of what I read in 2015, in approximately reverse order.

One in a Million Boy by Monica Wood

Deeper than Indigo by Jenny Balfour Paul

Sophie and the Sibyl by Patricia Duncker

Look at Me by Sarah Duguid

Rough Music, A Perfectly Good Man, Little Bits of Baby by Patrick Gale

The Kindness by Polly Samson

The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink (‘I know I’m damaged. As I’ve walked through fire, bits of me have burnt off – but I accept that.’)

Diana by R F Delderfield (not for the first time!)

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. (‘Lila no. To go out with her on Sunday became a permanent point of tension. If someone looked at her she returned the look’)

Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe. (‘All those brave people who seem to do things solo actually have people in the background who love them or at least like them’)

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

The Followers by Rebecca Wait

How to be Both by Ali Smith

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (along with er 478,884 others, or thereabouts)

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Runaway Wife by Rowan Coleman

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

Eloise by Judy Finnigan

Chocolate Wishes by Trisha Ashley

The Story of You by Katy Regan

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

A Gathering Storm by Rachel Hore

The Butterfly Box by Santa Montefiore

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

Her by Harriet Lane (a wonderfully effective and chilling conjuring up of pure malice)

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (warmly discussed at my work book club – my daughter was also a fan)

The Love of My Life by Louise Douglas

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Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe

Daughter by Jane Shemilt

Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Travelling to Infinity by Jane Hawking

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Kramer vs Kramer by Avery Corman

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And also in 2015…

I taught my first creative writing workshop (at North Cornwall Book Festival).

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Photo: Dan Hall

I wrote… More to follow in 2016…

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My time at North Cornwall Book Festival: a feast of books, music, conversation… and cake

Photo: Dan Hall

Photo: Dan Hall

I usually go to litfests to sit in the audience, not on the stage, so my recent trip to North Cornwall Book Festival was a little nerve-racking – though as it turned out there was nothing to fear, and everything to enjoy. I was involved in two events: first off I talked about my books to bestselling novelist and tirelessly hospitable festival host Patrick Gale, and then I hosted his talk about his latest book, A Place Called Winter. I also taught my first ever creative writing workshop.

I’m left with a blur of impressions: a marqueeful of primary school children laughing themselves silly at Christopher William Hill; sitting round the table at the farmhouse where most of us authors were staying, eating the most delicious poached pears; the moon rising over St Endellion Church, where we gathered for evening music of surprising and non-ecclesiastical kinds; lounging round in sudden sunlight on Sunday lunchtime when my workshop was done (you can see a photo of me with Patrick Gale and Neel Mukherjee at this point in this blog post about NCBF by BD Hawkey.)

There was a super-speedy blogging team from Falmouth Uni headquartered in the farmhouse – they wrote lots of great posts about the various author events and I’ve linked to several of them below – their NCBF blog is a really good whistle-stop tour of the whole experience.  There are also loads more brilliant pics (thank you Dan Hall) on the NCBF FB page.

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bloggers @charlottemsabin and @beakheads

North Cornwall Book Festival: authors and music galore

Moray Laing busy booksigning Photo: Dan Hall

Moray Laing signing autographs
Photo: Dan Hall

These are the events I went to:

At my event, I learned that Patrick Gale and I are both childhood fans of Mary Stewart, and talked about genre (one of the themes of the weekend) – here’s a bit more about it. As for Patrick, well, he must be the world’s easiest interviewee.

Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale
Photo: Dan Hall

The music at St Endellion Church was a revelation. I had to work seriously hard not to blub when Tom Hickox sang The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face (a song with associations and let’s face it, it’s a weep-inducer.)

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St Endellion Church

Wild Willy Barrett’s French Connection was irresistibly foot-tapping and got me in the mood for a hoedown. Missed my old cowgirl hat…

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My workshop: handling romance in fiction

At my workshop we talked about the archetype of the hero’s journey, with Cinderella as an example.

the hero(ine)'s journey

We also looked at three key scenes from stories about love, and discussed how love stories are always also about something else: whatever it is that is coming between the lovers and creating dramatic tension in the story (and is the reason for the story to exist). These are the novels we looked at:

  • Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale
workshop

Photo: Dan Hall

These are the books I recommended on storytelling, writing and becoming a writer:

  • The Writer’s Journey – Christopher Vogler
  • Negotiating with the Dead – Margaret Atwood
  • On Writing – Stephen King
  • On Becoming a Novelist, The Art of Fiction – John Gardner
  • The Writer’s Voice – Al Alvarez
  • Wild Mary – Patrick Marnham

And here are some of the characters and places we came up with for our meet cute exercise, just in case someone wants to give it a go (five minutes, take two characters and a place and write their meeting). It’s amazing what it’s possible to come up with in such a short space of time and reading what you’ve written out loud is always useful (turns out Patrick Gale does this a lot when he’s working on a new book).

Characters

  • Lottery winner
  • Someone who missed last train
  • Ex-boyfriend
  • Single parent on benefits
  • Soldier with PTSD
  • Coffee barista
  • Dog
  • Santa (someone dressed as)
  • Ex-vicar
  • Bailiff
  • Make-up artist
  • Policewoman
  • Depressed Hollywood star
  • Antiques dealer
  • American yoga teacher
  • Bank robber
  • Weather forecaster

Places

  • Fancy dress party
  • Camping site in the rain
  • Traffic jam
  • The moor at dawn
  • Edge of a cliff
  • Therapist’s waiting room
  • Manhattan rooftop
  • Village pub
  • Launderette
  • Smoking shelter
  • Ferry to a Greek island
  • Billiard table (full-size)
  • Purgatory

All good things must come to an end (till next time), and come Monday morning I was spirited away from the magic of NCBF to the much more familiar (but suddenly novel) magic of home. It was lovely to get back and have a big group hug, but the festival has stayed with me and so it will remain through the winter as this treasure trove sees me through the dark, the fog and the gloom:

books from North Cornwall Book Festival

If you’re in Cornwall next October half-term – do go! It will set you up for the winter. Oh, and did I mention the pasties and the cakes? No? A terrible omission. NCBF is a feast of all kinds, as you’ll see when you get there.

Thanks to the festival team for exemplary organisation, Patrick Gale for inviting me and Neel Mukherjee for suggesting me.

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the flowers in each author’s room

Litfest events I have loved

Polly Samson and Patrick Gale: seduction, loss, land and longing

Polly Samson's The Kindness and Patrick Gale's A Place Called WinterOutside was a preposterously beautiful, Technicolour autumn day, all blue skies and trees turning the colours of fire. If you’d used it in a film it would have been for heartbreak and parting, a belated outpouring of summer made all the more vivid because it is nearly time to say goodbye. Inside the grand but compact chamber of Henley’s Town Hall it was unseasonably warm; with five minutes to go there were only two seats left, and I took one of them. ‘Not much knee space. We’re rather close,’ somebody said as I squeezed in and arranged myself.

We were a packed and anticipant roomful of mostly women, book lovers and therefore by definition fond of the essentially private pastime of reading, though we were there not to read but to listen and to ask questions, to experience fiction as a public event. Instead of words on a page or a screen, we were going to see the writers who had drawn us there and hear their voices. We wanted stories, but more than that, we hoped for a glimpse into how and why they were told.

At one end of the room was a small and empty stage with three important-looking chairs, which were throne-like but in the manner of an English town hall and therefore designed for the comfortable sitting-out of long meetings as well as to be imposing. I imagine all sorts of practical things have been discussed in that room over the years: the price of corn or parking, the collection of refuse, the balancing of books and the taking of votes.

We weren’t there for any of that. We were there for semen and baby shoes, tales of a psychopathic rapist or a leech-like friend, families divided by wars and continents and the brutal convictions of an era, the tragedy of failed reconciliations and the power of impossible loves. And that was what we got, but as if that wasn’t enough, we also got to find out a little bit about what it takes to make all that stuff up and write it down.

Secrets uncovered: the prelude to post-lunch erotica

Windows were opened; the noises of outside – traffic, the market – drifted in along with the stirring of cooler air. A frisson ran round the room as our writers came in and went up to the little stage and took their places. We were on our way.

I’m sorry not to have a picture of them: they were a glamorous pairing. Patrick Gale is a dazzlingly charming silver fox, with a voice you could listen to forever – I think I’m right in saying he wanted to be an actor when he was younger and he has that gift that some actors have of making an instant connection with other people, a sort of receptivity that both gives and holds attention. I’m onto my fifth Patrick Gale novel now and am a committed member of his fan club, or would be if he formally had one. If you haven’t read any, and you have a space in your reading life for a writer who will draw you in, make you care, make you laugh and break your heart, then go get started.

Patrick Gale's novels

Polly Samson was new to me. There’s something otherworldly about her which makes it not quite right to describe her in worldly terms. She’s beautiful, poised, measured, with the kind of cool intelligence and self-possession that suggest heat under the surface. She’s also kind of rock’n’roll. She’s a lyricist as well as a novelist; her other half is David Gilmour from Pink Floyd and when she’s working on a book she reads what she’s written each day out loud to him in the evening.

Our hour with Patrick and Polly was hosted by Lucy Cavendish, who mentioned that Polly hadn’t eaten any lunch while Patrick had got through two chocolate brownies. If he was skittish, so were we. Off we went with a discussion about how both authors’ latest books had drawn life from their family history and secrets. Patrick told us about Harry Cane, his mother’s mysterious cowboy grandpa who emigrated to Canada under something of a cloud. Patrick set out to tell a story that would explain both what had happened to him and the way the family spoke about him, ‘a story that the women of the family wouldn’t have been told, but that might have been true’: ‘my nefarious scheme of gaying my great-grandfather.’ (I think that might be my favourite PG line from the session, along with the description of the readings as ‘post-lunch erotica’.)

Polly relayed a story from her own family history, a tormenting love triangle in which paternity was at stake. A couple who could not have a baby asked a friend to father a child for them, which he duly did before emigrating to the US, with the understanding that future contact between them would be minimal. But then war broke out and the husband sent his wife and child to their biological father in the US for safety, remaining in Paris to sort out paperwork… and ended up interned and separated from them for years, after which time his wife had decided that their child only needed one father, and was already living with him. A terrible story which culminated in the husband’s suicide.

This fed into Polly’s new novel The Kindness, though transplanted into a different time and place. Polly’s own complicated parentage also provided fuel for the story, and she told us about the father figure with whom she had lost contact, who she later learned had kept her baby shoes close by all his life.

A lesson in how to breathe and a cloudy offering

Both writers read aloud from their novels. Both read scenes that involved seduction, of one kind or another. Polly’s had a specimen jar, innocence yielding to scientific curiosity and a braless milkmaid, the examination of a cloudy offering. Patrick’s had a therapist who teaches a young man to breathe, then introduces him to sex on a bed so narrow that one of them must always be on top of the other. Clients visit in the morning, but the young man is invited to return in the afternoons: ‘You can just wait in the bed.’

We laughed and fanned ourselves with the useful cards explaining who had sponsored the event. They had us. We were sold. Now we wanted to find out how they had managed it. And this is what we learned.

(Warning: there are some spoilers in what follows, though I’ve tried to keep them to a minimum, but if you absolutely hate spoilers, you should go and read the books first. If, like me, you are undisciplined and sometimes even peek at the end of a story before you get there, you won’t care.)

The novel you end up writing may be quite different, in form at least, from the one you set out to write.

This was a bit of a revelation to me as I thought it was only me that did this and everybody else just put together their card indexes or flow charts or whatever and wrote the damn things, but no.

Patrick set out to write a very simple book, drawing on EM Forster and boys’ adventure stories, starting at the beginning and rattling on to the end: wrote it, and then set about chopping it up, both to tease the reader through the narrative and to break up the sadness in it. So the novel is a bit like a thriller, in that you learn early on that Harry has killed someone and that there are loves he can’t speak about.

Polly’s last book was a collection of interlinked short stories, and she set out to write this one as a series of stories but then restructured it so that she had two main voices followed by a third voice. She had been surprised by comments that it was like a thriller, and hadn’t set out to write a novel with twists and turns, but there they were. This meant she’d had ‘the joy of writing from two perspectives’ – she gave as an example an assignation in a Paris hotel described from the point of view of both the male and female lover, a fantasy made real for one and a seedy compromise for the other.

The story will be brought to life by the happy accident of characters who make their own way in.

Patrick told the story of Troels Munck, the antagonist to Harry Cane’s hero and, for my money, one of the most terrifying and convincing villains in all of literature. (A Place Called Winter is revelatory about evil, and how people try to survive it and can be destroyed by it.) The name was given by a real-life someone who had won an auction for it to be included. Patrick described the email exchange that followed: (PG): ‘Is it all right if I turn you into a psychopathic rapist?’ [LONG TUMBLEWEED EMAIL SILENCE] (TM): ‘OK, as long as he is hot.’

Is Troels hot? He’s a bully and a brute, but a compelling one – and he’s real, which is testament to the truthfulness with which he has been created. God save us all from encounters with the likes of Troels – outside of the pages of a book.

Polly spoke about Katie, the leech-like friend who was meant to be just a line in The Kindness but kept turning up. She also described the intense absorption of writing, how her children would come back from school and talk to her about their days and she would find herself not really taking it in, still caught up in the world of her characters. (I know that particular daze.) But she’d read Elena Ferrante while she was working on The Kindness – four years of close work, twenty years of gestation in all – and had found that Ferrante’s characters were as real to her as the ones she had invented herself and was carrying round with her. (Now I have to decide what to read next, The Kindness or Ferrante.)

Polly commented on how characters seem to turn up fully-formed. Patrick agreed: ‘They have to be, or they don’t work on the page.’

But what about planning? Patrick said he plans meticulously, but then ignores the plan. ‘It’s like getting ready for a play – I need to know about the characters and feel confident about who they are.’

The land you put into your book will shape it.

Patrick explained how as he worked on the book he had got increasingly angry about what had been done in Canada, but had wanted to show that in an elliptical way, without tub-thumping about imperialism. It’s there in the tragedy of Ursula. Also, as he explored the landscape and the history of the settlements, he became increasingly aware of how dangerous it was, and how vulnerable his characters were. Hence Troels.

Here’s a surprise nugget for you: there were no starlings in Canada till 1934, as a Canadian friend of Patrick’s told him after reading an early draft. Starlings follow agriculture and it took till then for them to arrive. So you won’t find them in Winter.

Patrick talked about his road trip to find his grandfather’s lot, and asked Polly if the house and garden in The Kindess were based on a real place: ‘I really wanted to go weeding there.’ Polly said the garden was a mixture of gardens she had loved.
Inevitably, your research will shape your book. Are there starlings, or not? Polly’s novel opens with a hawking scene. What size are the baby mice fed to a hawk?

Children in stories – yearned for or lost – exert a special power.

Harry Cane is a father, separated from his child by both distance and disgrace, and the plot of The Kindness hinges on the fathering of a child. Patrick said he felt that the male yearning to be a father is not much written about, and I think this is true; as he said, most stories that touch on this cast the father as the reluctant figure and the mother as longing for a child. (There is a weird nexus of cultural confusion around this, a mixture of blind spot and acute sensitivity – writers, take note: when that happens, there’s something to dig for.)

The story of Polly’s baby shoe lingered with us. (It made me think of the design for the hardback cover of Julie Cohen’s Dear Thing, which featured baby shoes, and which prompted a brilliant baby-shoe-shopping scene in the final version of the book.) At the end of the session, when I was chatting with my neighbours in the audience, one of them mentioned Ernest Hemingway’s potent six-word story: ‘For sale: baby shoes, nearly worn.’

And finally…

Patrick was asked whether he had a favourite out of his books. And yes – he does: they are the ones he wrote during the happiest times of his life: Notes from an Exhibition, Rough Music, Little Bits of Baby. ‘I’m always very protective of the most recent one, it’s like a child that’s just started school.’

And then we were done. We shifted and stretched, murmured to each other about how good it had been, formed an orderly line for books and signing, began to slip away.

Sooner or later we will start to read. We will hear those stories again, not in the august surroundings of Henley Town Hall but wherever we are – on a lunch break, in an armchair on a winter’s night, in the doctor’s waiting room. And once more we will allow those voices to take us somewhere else.

Polly Samson and Patrick Gale were speaking at Henley Literary Festival, in conversation with Lucy Cavendish, at an event sponsored by HW Fisher & Company.

autumn tree

The impossible choice: Kramer vs Kramer

Kramer vs Kramer

Has everybody seen Kramer vs Kramer? I watched it again about a year ago, as part of my research for my (nearly-finished) work-in-progress, which is partly about the aftermath of a custody battle. I was talking about it with a friend in a cafe a week ago when something unusual happened: the guy at the next table chipped in to tell us how that film had changed his life.

I’d just been talking about how I’d gone back to the book on which the film was based, and the case it makes for how, under some circumstances, the father should get primary custody after a split. Our neighbour at the next table was American, about my age – a 1970s child. He told us his parents had split up around the time Kramer vs Kramer came out and he had been about the same age as the boy in the film.

The original plan had been for him to live with his mother when everything was settled, but he had been living with his dad for a few months when his mum came to him and asked him who he wanted to live with: her, or his dad? And he chose his dad.

She’d asked him because she had seen the film and had been so affected by it. ‘A boy needs his father,’ she said.

So how had all this worked out? All right, it seemed – though it had meant the boy had to get on a plane to see his mother, which happened around three times a year.

Looking back from an adult’s perspective, he wondered if he’d understood the question in the way that she had meant it, as a choice between his parents. Perhaps he had really thought she was asking, ‘Do you want to stay here with Dad in the place you’ve got to know, or come with me to a place you’ve never seen?’ and, as children do, had plumped for what seemed most familiar, the least upheaval, at the time.

Stories are powerful things and sometimes they change lives…