What I learned about writing from Arvon (and hope to take back)

Alison Mercer teaching at North Cornwall Book Festival

Photo: Dan Hall. Here I am teaching at North Cornwall Book Festival in 2015

Seventeen years ago I did an Arvon course at Lumb Bank near Hebden Bridge; this autumn I’m going back to Arvon, this time as a tutor. I’m so happy to be going back, and a big part of that is because I had such a good Arvon experience myself.

Back in 2000, I knew I wanted to write, but for ages I hadn’t – not since I was a teenager (although I kept diaries, which are still in a cupboard somewhere.) I think part of what I was looking for was permission – that crucial thing that you need to overcome all those negative voices in your head telling you that writing is a waste of time, getting published is impossible and it won’t be any good anyway etc etc.

And I got what I needed, though it was a while longer before I really committed systematically to writing a novel and making time every day to get on with it.

Alison Mercer in Paris

me circa 2000 (hot chocolate in Paris, Café Flore)

I had picked out a beginners’ fiction writing course, figuring that a) it wouldn’t be too intimidating b) my fellow students wouldn’t be too intimidating. In November I’ll at the Hurst in Shropshire with Elizabeth Enfield, leading a course on romance and love stories in fiction. I hope that when it’s over, our students will go back home fired up with enthusiasm and with a few new tricks to help them push on with their writing, as I did all those years ago.

Here’s a bit more about what I got out of my first Arvon experience, and if you ever sign up for a course I hope you’ll find the same.

The power of scenery. My first impression of Hebden Bridge was of how beautiful it was. I was living in SW2 and had barely left the city for months; here, everything was green. There’s something about being transplanted from your usual habitat that’s highly conducive to getting your pen moving across the paper.

Permission to write, big-time. Everything was geared up to make it easy for you and support you in your writing. In everyday life, pretty much the opposite is true. I was charmed by the different nooks and crannies available to write in, and the care that had gone into creating them.

Structure is your friend. The course was highly structured, with morning classes, afternoons for writing and one-to-one tutorials, a mid-week visitor and an end-week goal – writing something to read to the whole group on the final evening. The basic structure of most five-day Arvon courses is the same today.

I’m the kind of person whose natural inclination is to chafe against structure, but over the years I’ve learned how much I need it, both for writing novels and for day-to-day life. (I have an autistic son, so routine and ritual are big in our house.)

My Arvon course tutors in 2000 were Alicia Stubbersfield and James Friel, and our midweek speaker was Patricia Duncker, who I met again at North Cornwall Book Festival in 2015. All of them are Arvon tutors still.

Get on with it. That was the heart of what my first Arvon experience taught me. If you put pen to paper, you’ll get something down, even if you only have fifteen minutes. And then you can revise it and improve it. You might even be pleasantly surprised when you read it back. This was a revelation to me.

There’s also something very powerful about a) reading your work aloud b) reading it to a group – in other words, suddenly finding yourself with an audience.

Other people make all the difference. My Arvon course had a collegiate atmosphere. For five intense days, we lived together, cooked evening meals together and ate together. We prepared the evening meal in teams – luckily, my team back in 2000 included some much better cooks than me. Someone had brought a guitar, and I remember late-night Sinatra singalongs and good use being made of the red wine honesty box. Our group met up a few times afterwards, but I drifted out of touch after I got married, had a baby and moved out of London.

My fellow students were supportive and convivial, and that made the process of writing and sharing what we had written much less alarming. When you’re up against a challenge (like writing), at some point you’re going to need allies – and other writers are the best.

Alison Mercer writing at desk

at work at my desk

There’s something for every writer at Arvon, whatever your form and genre, and whether you’re just starting out or already have a first draft you want to knock into shape. There are also grants available to help cover course fees and first-time Arvon writers are a priority.

I’ll report back after my return to Arvon in November!

PS. My favourite books on writing are:

  • Stephen King’s On Writing
  • Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead.

Negotiating with the Dead, by Margaret Atwood

I also like The Writer’s Voice by Al Alvarez and On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner, who was Raymond Carver’s writing tutor.

More about tutoring and studying creative writing

My time at North Cornwall Book Festival

A tale of two creative writing courses

What makes a great love story?

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.

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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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.

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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…

Curtis Sittenfeld’s Sisterland and the writer as psychic

Sisterland and Negotiating with the Dead

On my desk right now: Sisterland and Negotiating with the Dead

I got into Curtis Sittenfeld because of the cover of American Wife, which featured a nostalgic photograph of a hopeful woman in a skirt, on a bike, against a backdrop of some arable crop – it could be corn, or maybe wheat – and sky. It made me think of Dorothy in Kansas, but all grown up and without the gaudy technicolour magic. I kept seeing that picture in the supermarket until I bought the book.

After that I read Curtis Sittenfeld’s first and second novels, and then I was left waiting for her next, which turned out to be Sisterland, which the postman handed over to me last week, as part of a parcel of books from my publisher. (Thank you Harriet.) I finished Sisterland last night and, as I expected, I loved it.

Like Curtis Sittenfeld’s other books, Sisterland is ostensibly about a story about a unique, even bizarre, situation but also, as if by sleight of hand – or, perhaps, in the shadowy room for manoeuvre created by a really strong hook – deals with something else. So American Wife answers the question, What is it like to be married to the President? And: What kind of woman ends up married to the President? But at the same time it tackles a number of other questions, which I can’t explicitly reveal without spoiling the book for you if you haven’t read it (in which case, get thee hence and tuck in), but which can be summarised as: what if you make a life-wrecking mistake when you are young? Can you recover, and if you do, will it still catch up with you anyway?

In Sisterland, the overt question – the narrative hook – is this: a psychic predicts a major earthquake. Is she right? Is it possible to accurately predict the future? But underlying that – at least, the way I read it – is another dilemma, and this is a much more universal one: is it possible to be feminine, a wife and mother, and also to use your gifts and be free? And if you have a gift and decide not to use it, what happens to you then?

Slippery doubles, twinship and writing

Sisterland sent me back to one of my favourite books about writing, Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead, which talks at some length about the use of doubles in fiction, and why writers are so preoccupied by them. (Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin is largely about a fraught relationship between sisters – and Curtis Sittenfeld’s The Man of my Dreams also explores this. But to take it further, to make the sisters twins and psychic to boot, makes it ever more apparent that you are dealing with two mutations of one self.)

There’s a passage in Negotiating with the Dead where Margaret Atwood draws a distinction between ‘the person who exists when no writing is going forward – the one who walks the dog, eats bran for regularity, takes the car in to be washed, and so forth – and that other, more shadowy and altogether more equivocal personage who shares the same body, and who, when no one is looking, takes it over and uses it to commit the actual writing.’

She goes on to say, ‘I am after all a writer, so it would follow as the day the night that I must have a slippery double – or at best a mildly dysfunctional one – stashed away somewhere. I’ve read more than one review of books with our joint surname on them that would go far toward suggesting that this other person – the one credited with authorship – is certainly not me. She could never be imagined – for instance – turning out a nicely browned loaf of oatmeal-and-molasses bread, whereas I . . . but that’s another story.’

The twins, or slippery doubles, in Sisterland are Daisy and Violet Schramm, except when Daisy leaves home she decides she wants to distance herself from Violet (and, by implication, from her true self), and changes her name. Marriage helps, and when we meet her, at the beginning of the novel, she has become the altogether less distinctive Kate Tucker, who, as Vi points out, sounds like a Puritan.

Kate/Daisy begins to move away from Vi as an adolescent because they put on a show together and she plays the feminine role, and is afterwards praised for her prettiness. Popularity and acceptability beckon. She doesn’t want to be weird, and she certainly doesn’t want to be like Vi, one of whose gifts is a robust indifference to what other people think. (Also, Vi is overweight, whereas Kate/Daisy is meticulous about hitting the Stairmaster.)

And so Kate/Daisy ends up as a full-time wife and mother who has done her best to abandon her psychic abilities (but has she managed to destroy them entirely? Not quite, as you’ll see – gifts have a way of passing themselves on), a woman who is dangerously flattered, at a crucial point in the novel, when someone tells her how pretty and nice she is. Meanwhile Vi lurches towards celebrity, or notoriety, with her very public earthquake prediction – much to Kate’s embarrassment and fear.

It turns out that writing about psychics is a neat way to allude to the business of writing itself. Writers intuit what might happen to characters as the story goes on, though they don’t know for sure until it happens – and Kate and Vi are in much the same awkward and uncertain position. It made me smile when Vi, having achieved some success as a psychic (though, as it turns out, only with Kate/Daisy’s help), is able to make a living out of her gift, having previously struggled along as a waitress; some of the members of her old meditation group, who have not been quite so lucky commercially, are rather jealous of her. (I was wondering if something similar might happen if one member of a writing group found herself in a position to make the writing pay for itself.)

The art of making it real

Sisterland is unsettling, and creepy and funny and melancholy, and pulls off the coup of being both startling and believable. When I read, I want to be introduced to a new world and recognise it as true, while at the same time knowing that I’m being shown people and places that I’ve never seen before; Curtis Sittenfeld has the requisite twin gifts of truthfulness and originality in abundance, which is why she is one of my favourite discoveries of recent years.

Within the first few pages of American Wife I realised I’d found a new writer that I really liked, which is one of the great pleasures of reading. The best consolation for coming to the end of a book you love is knowing that there are others by the same author that you can go on to; and reading a number of different books by the same writer helps to confirm your sense of what is unique about them, and what attracted you to them in the first place.

It’s like getting to know someone by seeing them over time, dealing with different situations and environments; you can satisfy your curiosity about what this person has done in the past, and if the writer is still going strong, you’ll be eager to find out where they’re going next.

For me, and I suspect for most of us, this doesn’t happen all that often – this finding a book you really like, and chasing up the writer’s backlist. Back in the 1990s, it was William Gibson (starting with Neuromancer ), Margaret Atwood (The Blind Assassin), Raymond Carver (the collected short stories),  James Ellroy (LA Confidential), Jean Rhys (Wide Sargasso Sea), Jayne Anne Phillips (Fast Lanes), and Joyce Carol Oates (Blonde). Those are all terrific books, and if you haven’t read them, I urge you to at least look them up – maybe you’ll get hooked on those writers the way I did.

More recently, there’s been Claire Messud (The Emperors’ Children), George R R Martin (Game of Thrones) and, of course, Curtis Sittenfeld. I guess you might deduce from this list that, on the whole, I love genre fiction and women’s fiction (or rather, fiction by and largely about women), and my heart is unstirred by much else, and you’d probably be about right. Why exactly it should be so I don’t know. What exactly it is that gets me hooked I don’t know. Sympathy for the underdog might be part of it, but only part; I suspect I also respond to writers who let their underdogs bite back.

After I Left You: the story of my second novel

cover of After I Left YouEvery story has its own story – the story of the story. Any debut novel is a tale of hope against the odds; you write it, you have no idea whether it will ever see the light of day, and then, miraculously, it does. That was so for Stop the Clock, my first novel, and yet it’s also true for After I Left You, which I started work on long before. So you could say that After I Left You is my other first novel.

The very first prototype of one of the main characters in After I Left You, which is due to be published in November this year, appeared in a fledgeling story about university students that I began and abandoned way back in 1999. The character who first emerged back then was Clarissa Hayes, the second-generation celebrity whose sitcom actress mother is a national treasure.

Clarissa didn’t start off having a famous mother, but she always seemed like a potential star herself – from the start, for good or ill, she was the sort of character you notice. It’s the presence of Clarissa in After I Left You that takes the story overseas for a brief interlude in 1990s Los Angeles, where three of the characters go rollerblading on Venice Beach – or rather, two go rollerblading and one sits out, for reasons that will become clear when you read the book. (Just to prove that I am a conscientious author and do my research, see below for a snap of me on Venice Beach in 1995.)

Venice Beach
Some other elements of the story were present from the very first fragmentary drafts, including the idea of a secret that has caused one person to break away from a group of friends, and will eventually be revealed. Another character who appeared early on was Keith, the melancholy Gothic misfit. He attempted to squeeze into an early draft of Stop the Clock, but was cut out, which was just as well, because After I Left You is certainly where he belongs.

But much of the novel that will be published in paperback in July 2014, and is now available for pre-order on Amazon, only really came together once I had decided to tell it from the first person point of view. Anna, who is the eyes and ears of the novel, knows all too well what happened back in the past to prompt her decision to exile herself from her friends, but she’s keeping it to herself. That tension between telling and holding back kept me on my toes as a writer and hopefully will have the same effect on readers too.

IMG_3342 ed

Writing in the first person

What happened to prompt the choice to write in the first person? While I was working on Stop the Clock over 2009 to 2012 I read all the Twilight books, and then the Hunger Games series. Also, Fifty Shades of Grey sat at the top of the bestseller charts for months on end, and I looked through that too, purely for research purposes of course… All of these books are first person stories, and that’s what gives them a lot of their immediacy and drive.

Another book I tried to learn from is I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith’s brilliant novel which foregrounds the fact that its narrator is not just telling you the story, she’s scribbling it down – right from the start when she tells you ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink’, and then goes on to explain she’s actually sitting on the draining-board with her feet in the sink, because it’s the last place in the kitchen with any light left. (As good a metaphor as any for the situation in which the woman writer finds herself working, with domestic concerns never far away?)

I’m a big fan of the first person narrative, and always have been. Jane Eyre and The Catcher in the Rye are two of my very favourite books. The first person works brilliantly for coming-of-age stories, and After I Left You is a coming-of-age story with a twenty-year interval, so it struck me as an approach I should try.

I also love Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, which puts age in sharp contrast with youth, and has a story-within-the-story – you’ll find a bit of that in After I Left You, too.

The novel as timetravelling machine

After I Left You has two timelines, one set in the early 1990s and one in the present day, which was fun for me because I could time travel, which is something that, in my view, the novel does better than any other art form. (See The Time Traveler’s Wife, which does this so brilliantly it was always going to be hard for the film to match up.)

Like zillions of other readers, I was very taken by One Day, and part of the pleasure of that was recognising the times that the characters pass through, from the late 1980s up to the present day, which are so sharply and astutely observed; I started a little later and missed out all the years in between, but was able to play with a similar timescale.

Where? An Oxford novel, or a novel set in Oxford?

Another decision that I made at a late stage was the decision to set After I Left You fair and square in Oxford. Now, I love Oxford, and Oxfordshire, which is where I live. But I was nervous about writing about Oxford students. Brideshead Revisited, another book that I love, casts a long and rather daunting shadow, although of course it isn’t really about Oxford students at all; it’s about the big, universal themes – love, family, loss, change and the passing of time; innocence giving way to experience; wrongdoing and redemption.

Actually even Brideshead isn’t even quite what you think it is. When I re-read it I was amused to find a scene I had quite forgotten, in which the students go up to London and get bladdered and drive the wrong way up a road and nearly end up getting arrested. Not so much of the cricket jumpers and fine wines, more your everyday big-night-out-on-the-town bender. But anyway, you’ll find at least two sideways nods to Brideshead in After I Left You; a scene in which somebody throws up, and another, on a quite different note, that takes place in a chapel.

My editor helped to get me over my scruples over setting After I Left You in Oxford by sending me Jilly Cooper’s Harriet, which opens with an account of Harriet, an innocent student, being quizzed by a rather randy-seeming tutor about which of Shakespeare’s characters would be best in bed. (She reckons, not Hamlet – he would have talked too much). So then I just got on with it and Oxford fell into the place in the story that it should really have had all along.

Another novel set in Oxford (but not explicitly about students) that I’m an admirer of is Charlotte Mendelson’s fantastic Daughters of Jerusalem, just for the record.

book signing at Wargrave libary for blog

The story behind the story

Stevie Smith typed on yellow office paper while working as a secretary; Colette was locked into a room by her husband; Jane Austen wrote in the drawing-room and covered up her work when somebody entered. There’s always a story behind the story, and when we read we often want to know about that other story, too.

When my first novel, Stop the Clock, was published in August 2012 I knew exactly what the story behind it was: it seemed clear and distinct, with a structured timeframe and a hopeful ending. The first draft was written in instalments over the course of a year, a chapter a month, and handed over to a colleague, a fellow part-time working mother, in a series of A4 envelopes. A writer friend, Neel Mukherjee, suggested an agent to approach; two rewrites later, it found a publisher.

Shortly before Stop the Clock came out, my son, then four, was diagnosed with autism. The experiences of working on the novel and having it published, and working towards that diagnosis and obtaining it and moving on, are intertwined for me. The book was a breakthrough that helped to keep me upbeat, and the diagnosis was a traumatic but fundamentally positive watershed that showed the way to our family’s future.

‘So is it easier second time round?’ This is a question that friends have asked me a few times over the last few months, and I’ve found it hard to answer, because, like one birth compared to another, it has just been so different. One thing I do remember, though. Some years ago, around 2007 or 2008, I ceremonially posted off the first three chapters of an earlier version of After I Left You to a selection of agents (not including Judith Murdoch, the brilliant agent I am now represented by, who I approached later on with Stop the Clock.)

The agents who saw this early version of After I Left You all rejected it so fast it made my head spin, and probably they were quite right to do so, as it was a long way from taking the shape it has now. Anyway, that was obviously a bit of a downer, but not at all the end of the story.

Because what I really remember from that experience was this. I had gone into Oxford with my husband, and we sent off the chapters from the post office on St Aldate’s before going out for a celebratory lunch. And it felt special. It felt Christmas Eve, when everything is quiet and expectant, and the magic is just about to kick in. It felt like something was going to happen. And now it is.

What readers want to know about writers (and Stop the Clock)

Book signing at an event at Wargrave Library in 2013

Book signing at an event at Wargrave Library in 2013

Meeting groups of readers is the closest I’ve come to having the stuff I’ve made up and stuck in a book come to life. Here, suddenly, is a group of women (sometimes with a few men!) talking about my characters as if they’re real people, who might walk into the room and join us at any moment. It’s a salutary reminder of how much readers bring to a book, and what a strange alchemy reading is.

Inevitably, readers have different ideas about books, just as we all have our own views of what’s going on around us in real life – otherwise, what would book groups ever find to debate? But often there’s some consensus, and sometimes readers have similar questions to ask writers. Here are some questions that I’ve been asked by groups of book lovers (most recently the Oxford branch of the National Council of Women, who had way more life experience between them than any other group I’ve spoken to, and were as perceptive as they were good-humoured).

Do you really write every evening?

As the press release for Stop the Clock explained, it was written between the hours of nine and midnight. That’s most nights from spring 2009 to around January 2012. But, if I’m really honest, not all nights. Sometimes Homeland was on. And sometimes I fell asleep when I put my children to bed. And sometimes I had just finished a draft and gave myself a week off to watch a DVD box set (hello, Game of Thrones).

I know lots of writers say you ABSOLUTELY MUST WRITE EVERY DAY or you will turn into a pumpkin. I’m sure this is very sound advice, along with the guidance that we should all exercise three times a week and eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. I don’t always manage those either. (Ahem. I think I’m better at writing consistently than either keeping fit or consuming fruit.) So the honest answer to this question is, mostly, especially when in a deadline panic. But… not always.

How much do you plan in advance?

I know one writer (a screenwriter) who won’t allow himself to start work until he’s figured out absolutely everything that’s going to happen and can’t bear to hold back from getting on with it any longer. I don’t work like that at all, though maybe it would make my life easier if I did.

Stop the Clock started with characters rather than plot. I had a rough idea of what each character was going to go through, but although I gave them a bit of a steer, I didn’t know when I first set pen to paper exactly how it was going to turn out. What happened to them over time became apparent over successive drafts.

My work-in-progress had a slightly different starting point, a revelation scene – a revelation from the heroine to the reader – that I wrote very early on. Much of the rest of the process of writing the book was finding out how the heroine got to that point and what happened to her afterwards.

I think perhaps I plan relatively little, and then have no option but to plot: to scheme, manipulate, form alliances, and generally attempt to manoeuvre my characters – and the reader, who is just as unseen and imagined – into the parts I envisage them playing. As I go along, sequences of events present themselves and I scribble them down. Not so much planning as ‘plot and jot’.

I also listen to music. That’s my secret weapon. There’s nothing like a song for giving you a short cut to a particular mood. It’s amazing how music can bring emotions to the surface in three minutes flat that a book will toil away over hundreds of pages to elicit.

Do you do much research?

I think this is a very shrewd question. The flip-side of it is, How much do you make up, and how much do you draw from life? And it’s almost impossible to answer honestly, because just about everything is research. And at the same time, when it comes down to it, I make it all up.

The research aide I relied on most heavily for Stop the Clock – apart from my magpie memory and years of conversation with interesting friends – was a table in Sheila Kitzinger’s The New Pregnancy and Childbirth which is designed to help you calculate your due date. It was quite a headache getting everybody to reproduce within feasible timescales and when I wanted them to.

I also like asking myself ‘What if?’ and seeing what comes out.

What do male readers make of Stop the Clock?

I’ve been particularly intrigued by male readers’ reactions to this story, which is so much about women’s relationships with each other and women getting to grips with motherhood – or thinking that they would prefer not to. Some of the very earliest readers were male – my husband, the poet Ian Pindar, and the novelist Neel Mukherjee, who both encouraged me to set about trying to get it published.

Since then? The reactions have been unpredictable and surprising. I think the warmest responses have come from men of around my own age who have young-ish children. There was the twentysomething who gamely gave it a go, and diplomatically told me that he realised he wasn’t the target demographic. Though the truth is, there wasn’t really a target − if you’re at all interested, you’re it! There was also the older man who observed that it was ‘a bit birthy’. Which it is… But that’s life, I guess!

In general, amongst my very favourite reader responses are: the reader who cried; the reader who missed a tube stop; and the reader who promptly booked a holiday to Cornwall. (One of those was male, two female. The man cried.) That pretty much sums up what I wanted the book to do: to make you feel, to make you forget yourself, and to take you somewhere else.