London Lit Lab – Lily Dunn & Zoe Gilbert

I’m delighted to welcome London-based writers Lily Dunn and Zoe Gilbert to the blog.

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Lily Dunn is an author, mentor, editor and creative writing teacher. She has written three novels (Portobello Books), and a handful of short stories (Matter magazine), and is currently working on a PhD in creative non-fiction. She is a trained editor and journalist and has written for Time Out magazine, the Guardian, the Telegraph and numerous other publications. She has experience teaching teenagers and adults in class and workshops. As chair of North London Writers, she has many years experience in critiquing novel manuscripts and short stories. She is co-director of London Lit Lab.

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Zoe Gilbert is an author, creative writing teacher and mentor specialising in short fiction. Her stories have been published in anthologies and journals around the world, and have won prizes including the Costa Short Story Award 2014. She is working on a PhD in Fiction and Creative Writing, focusing on the influence of folk tales on contemporary short stories. As host of the Short Story Critique Group at Waterstones Piccadilly, and co-host the Short Story Club at the Word Factory (where she is Associate Editor), she has many years’ experience of critiquing fiction. She has also taught creative writing classes to adults and teenagers, and is co-director of London Lit Lab.

There are two reasons for hosting Lily and Zoe on the blog: the first is that I try to cover a variety of excellent writers from huge names to the lesser known and the second is that Lily and Zoe have set up London Lit Lab in order to support new writers. Herein lies another reason; before I applied to do an MA in Creative Writing, I went on a new writers’ course to see whether I could actually write or not. It gave me a huge amount of confidence and ideas and I was successful in being accepted on an MA so I’m pleased that Lily and Zoe have identified that there’s potential here for supporting people who might feel the same way. (I realise that not everyone can afford to go on a course, which is exactly why Kerry Hudson established The WoMentoring Project. Details on the link.)

Tell us a bit about London Lit Lab and why you decided to create it.

Lily: The idea for London Lit Lab came out of a conversation between, me, Zoe and Julia Bell, my PhD supervisor. Julia suggested there was a gap in the market for a friendly, affordable London-based writing course and reading/critiquing service. So, Zoe and I, who’d become friends through North London Writers, decided to have a go at setting up a mini business. We thought we’d start with a beginners’ course (which we’re leading in June) and follow with an intermediate course, which might appeal to those who can’t afford an MA, or have just finished an MA and have a body of work that they need help with developing. Both Zoe and I have experience in teaching, and saw this as a great way to develop our vocation.

Zoe: We’ve both spent so many years giving critical feedback on short stories and novels, teaching here and there, and mentoring fellow writers through projects, it seemed a natural step to put all that in one place and create a home for writers. I think we both feel we’ve benefitted so much from the help and inspiration other writers have given us as we’ve developed, we also wanted to give that back. Courses that get you thinking differently, or learning how to use feedback and editing advice, have been invaluable to me, and have kept me going and hopefully progressing. London Lit Lab aims to provide the same for London’s writers.

Why do you write? Are there any reoccurring themes or ideas in your work?

Lily: Writing for me is a kind of personal expression, and a way of understanding the world. I tend to write about whatever I am living at any given time. An idea for a book often starts with a moment or emotion that I might have experienced, and then through the process of thinking and developing it turns into its own story, hopefully with wider resonance. But there will be themes in there that relate to me, and my view of the world. There will definitely be complex family dynamics, a few disillusioned love affairs, an overriding sense of loss and longing…

Zoe: Most of my work in the last few years has been driven by my fascination with folk tales – not just their stories and fantastical worlds, but also their structures and styles. They have a flatness that is unlike what we look for in a novel, for example. I love experimenting with this. I keep writing because I feel funny if I don’t. Writing is scary but not writing is worse!

You’re both working towards PhDs in Creative Writing, Lily in Creative Non-Fiction and Zoe in short stories. Why did you decide to pursue a PhD and what affect do you think it’s having on your work?

Lily: I didn’t really pursue a PhD – it just kind of happened to me. Again, from a conversation with Julia Bell, when I told her about an idea I had for my next book and she suggested I apply to study with her. I had, of course, thought about it, mainly because I wanted to teach, and jobs in higher education, particularly, are so hard to get these days unless you have a PhD, but also because I welcomed the opportunity to go deeper into my interests and discipline. I also liked the idea of returning to an institution. The combination of writing and mothering can be isolating, and I saw the PhD as a way of stepping back out into the world. I remember when I did my Masters how good it felt to prioritize the writing, to take it seriously; and I suppose the PhD is the next level. It feels like a bit of a wonderful indulgence, but I’m going to enjoy it while it lasts.

Zoe: The appeal for me was similar – to make a commitment to my writing, and also to get such high level critical feedback from a supervisor for several years. I didn’t do a creative writing MA, so it was a plunge in at the deep end, but as soon as I found out you could even do a PhD in creative writing, it clicked. I went on an Arvon tutored retreat with Alison MacLeod, found out that she supervises PhDs, and approached her afterwards. I was lucky that she had a space and wanted to work with me. Doing the PhD helps me feel qualified to talk about short stories both academically and creatively, and hopefully also makes me a better teacher!

You’ve been posting a writing exercise on your website each week for people to have a go at. Can we see what you came up with for one of the exercises? (It doesn’t have to be the same one.)

We had a bit of fun with these exercises. We wanted people to get involved and be free to play around with them, not to take it too seriously. The main aim was to get people writing. We posted a brief exercise a while ago, and here is a rather silly London Lit Lab response:

Create a hybrid of a politician and a pop star, and then converse with them in a lift…

David Cameron and Lady GaGa. He-She is wearing a black leather jacket with studs, has a peroxide quiff and high-heeled brogues, pinstripe trousers (cropped).

CamGa says: ‘Yo!’
I smile.
CamGa: ‘I can see you staring there.’
I say: ‘What?’
CamGa: ‘From across the block with a smile on your mouth.’
I realise we’ve passed the second floor, and I’ve got four floors to go, I frown.
CamGa: ‘And with your hand on your huh?’
‘Ah,’ with a gracious smile.
CamGa: ‘So which way?’
I say: ‘The only way is up.’
CamGa: ‘The political system is broken, the economy is broken and so is society. That is why people are so depressed about the state of our country.’
I ask: ‘So you’ve found a better way?’
CamGa looks down at his spangled garb and say, ‘Garage Glam Baby.’
We ping to the sixth floor, and I say: ‘Ding dong.’

Zoe: here’s one I did, which involved attributing a magic power to a normal kitchen object, and writing the opening of a story about it. I decided my antique teapot could catch thunder and then pour it out when required:

It surprised me the first time. Looking from my window at the rain lashing the street into darkness, the gutters streaming, the drains gurgling, I saw a woman amble out from number 5. She stood, letting her clothes drench and her hair plaster to her head, while she stared up at the sky. Then she began to jog, awkwardly, because she held an object out in front of her. Just then the sky flashed with lightning, and a second later the thunder cracked from the West, somewhere over the industrial estate I guessed. The woman started running faster, towards the rumbling, and as she passed my house I saw that what she held was a teapot. Even through the squalling rain, I could see the pink rose pattern, the gold detailing. A nice teapot. I worried she might drop it. She put one hand on top of it, to steady it, I supposed. But no, she lifted the lid and as she ran she held the teapot high over her head. That was the first time. I love watching storms, but now there’s an extra reason to stand at the window, and watch the woman from number five come striding out with her teapot, tracking the thunder…

What can people expect if they enrol on one of your courses?

Lily: Above all, they can expect a warm and friendly atmosphere, which we hope will be conducive to the production of some good writing. We want people to feel comfortable and at home. Our classes will be challenging and informative, but also fun. In our beginners’ course we will use a mix of exercises and texts, and will be pulling together all the best bits Zoe and I have learned at various courses we’ve attended over the years, combined with our own wisdom from our quite different writing practices. We’ll also take inspiration from the lovely Leila’s Shop.

Zoe: Friendly and inspiring classes – deciding to go on a writing course at all when you’ve never been on one is a big deal, and I remember how I felt the first time I did that. Terrified! I thought, that’s not for me, they’ll all be writers, and I can’t even say that about myself in my head, let alone out loud… I had such a positive experience and that’s what I want to provide at London Lit Lab. The initial fear will disappear behind a great puff of new ideas, and ways to get your writing going. For the advanced course, I’m looking forward to both giving and guiding critique, and introducing writers to fantastic examples of novels and short stories as a way to learn what works.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?

Lily: I find it difficult to answer this question, as I’ve never been obsessed with certain authors and read all that they’ve ever produced; though, of course, there are plenty of writers out there who I’ve loved, been inspired by, have returned to again and again. Anne Enright’s fiction never fails to give me that tingling feeling. I found the Gathering a masterpiece in innovative storytelling and voice. I am also very interested in this new wave of critical memoir/autofiction, in the more idea-led works by Chris Kraus and Katherine Angel, and I’ve read quite a few of Rachel Cusk’s works, both fiction and non-fiction, a writer who intrigues me. I am also interested in Elena Ferrante’s early works and her unashamed bare-all tone. I think this is an exciting time for female writers. There are some very interesting books being published, which are asking important questions, pushing at the boundaries of fiction and genre.

Zoe: Helen Oyeyemi, Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter spring immediately to mind – they all have wild imaginations and voices which are impossible to imitate. I would add Scarlett Thomas for the same reasons. All of them get away with breaking the rules, and perhaps that’s why their fiction is so memorable. I admire George Eliot, too, for completely different reasons. I recently reread Middlemarch, and was blown away by her perceptions and expressions of human states. I hadn’t remembered that at all from reading it as a teenager! It was like having a light shone on the human mind at intervals throughout the book. I wish I could do that.

Thanks to Lily and Zoe for their responses. You can find out more about London Lit Lab here.

Dog Days – Mavis Cheek + Q&A

I’d never read a Mavis Cheek novel until a month ago, when Ipso Books announced ebook versions of several of her books. I began with Dog Days, which I loved and I’m thrilled to have Mavis on the blog today to answer some questions about her writing.

Dog Days by Mavis Cheek

Dog Days is the story of Patricia, her divorce from her husband of eleven years and the setting up of a new home for her and their ten-year-old daughter, Rachel. The novel begins with a trip to Battersea Dogs’ Home to procure a dog for Rachel, a canine substitute for her father’s absence. Unfortunately, Patricia hates dogs:

They are but crap on legs, beleaguerers of the sandalled foot on a summer’s eve, providers of that little pile of excrement right where the honest citizen walks by, scratchers in grass and sniffers of personal places as they vile progenitors exhort you to enjoy the experience for they are simply ‘trying to be friendly…’ My best friend, to my certain knowledge, has never lifted my skirts with her nose to establish rapport.

However, they take home a small, thin, ginger mongrel named Brian who provides an excellent bit of comedy plot later in the novel.

We then learn how Patricia and Gordon met, how they were on the verge of splitting up when Patricia discovered she was pregnant with Rachel and how this put an end to her time as a mature student. We’re privy to her discussions with a solicitor as to why she’s divorcing Gordon and why she doesn’t want any money for herself.

The plot that emerges centres on Patricia’s new, single life and her friends’ attempts to get her dating again, despite Patricia’s protests that she’s perfectly happy as she is.

The novel considers the practicalities of divorce – moving house, sharing the children, new partners – and what life is like for women, losing something of themselves to marriage and childcare. This sounds like heavy going but Cheek brings a lightness to the book with some great comedy set pieces and a misunderstanding by Patricia over a local vet.

Dog Days is insightful and funny. I was gripped, finishing it within a day and now I’m looking forward to the rest of Cheek’s back catalogue.

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Why did you decide to write comedy?

It came naturally. It surprised me that after I tried suppressing every glimmer of humour in my fiction (you should read my first, thankfully unpublished, novel) I allowed it to come out in my second novel which made me laugh as I wrote it and made readers laugh as they read it. It is, I suppose, how I view the world. Full of awful things, yes, but much to be laughed at within the awfulness (Look at Donald Trump).

Divorce doesn’t strike me as a particularly funny topic yet you make it one in Dog Days. How did the idea that you could write a comedy about divorce come about?

Largely because I was going through something similar in my life and one way of making it easier was to poke a bit of fun at it all, to laugh at our absurdities but at the same time, I hope, to keep it truthful and not to belittle the experience. Brian is wholly invented.

Some of the set pieces – Patricia and Gordon’s first meeting and the rabbit scenario, for example – are absolutely hilarious. Are these completely made up or do you collect stories from friends to adapt?

Pretty well everything in Dog Days happened to me – or a version of it happened to me – though the story about Bulstrode and Brian is based on a story that was going the rounds, which I thought was both funny and painful. So much comedy is made up of those two elements – as – indeed – is the first meeting between Patricia and Gordon. I had many letters from women who had gone through or were going through divorce after this book came out thanking me for writing it. And of course, my ex-partner was furious and called it my ‘vile fiction’.

Readers seem to dislike novelists killing off dogs. You avoid that but Patricia’s disdain for Brian is clear. Have you had any complaints from dog loving readers?

Well – no – not as far as I know. And when this book was first published there was no such thing as the Internet. If it was to be published for the first time now I would probably be trolled and have death threats. I should add, because it’s another example of how funny life can be, that I have since been asked to judge local dog shows – which I did with a mixture of delight and fear – everything from The Waggiest Tail to The Dog Who Looks Most Like Its Owner. I developed a great deal of respect for the dogs who clearly thought their owners were nuts but obliged them by participating fully.

Despite Patricia’s decision to remain single, her friends repeatedly attempt to set her up with various men. Why did you choose to explore the idea that women can be alone and contented?

Because it is true. Women can be alone and contented. And I have seen (and continue to see) so many women friends (and men friends) take up permanent relationships with wildly unsuitable new partners just because they think it better than being on their own. Maybe it is. I wouldn’t know as I value my independence and happiness to take that risk. But if someone whom I fancied madly and admired as a person should come along and say ‘How about it…?’ I’d be delighted.

There are a number of perceptive comments in the novel as to how society views and treats girls and women. Did you set out to write a feminist novel?

I’ve never set out to write anything fictional that is ideologically based. It’s just my natural view of how things are. I’m a feminist to my bones without even trying. Girls are doing brilliantly at school and university but that’s still not reflected in the balance of the world. Look at Zaha Hadid – who was virtually number one in a field of one so far as great women architects were concerned, and boy she paid for it.   Look at the top UK 100 Companies and their Boards and Chairs… woefully few women… Women still lag behind men in all sorts of ways despite their equal or surpassing qualifications and intelligence. The dark side of this is Rotherham and Savile. Things are not that much further forward since I wrote DogDays though I suppose we have stopped being patted on the bum and told to run off and make the tea. I’m about to employ builders and in the cause of getting decent service I’ve roped in a male friend of mine to be part of the dealings. You can say I’m letting the side down but experience tells me that it will smooth the path – I’ve fought my battles over the years with The Great Unliberated Male – and I’m a little bit tired of it.

My blog focus on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?

Those great 19C novelists – Jane Austen, Maria Edgeworth,Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell (all fell foul of male critics in their lifetimes). 20C – Richmal Crompton, Beryl Bainbridge, Toni Morrison, Anne Tyler, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Forster, Agatha Christie, Edna O’Brien, Anita Desai, Chimamanda Ngochi Adichie, Margaret Drabble, May Angelou, Sue Townsend   – it’s a rich mix.

A huge thank you to Mavis Cheek for the interview and to Ipso Books for the review copy.

You can find out more about Mavis at mavischeek.co.uk 

Dog Days is published by Ipso Books on Mon 16th May. You can find out more about Ipso Books at ipsobooks.com and @ipsobooks

Mavis is on twitter at @mavischeekbooks

Readers can get two free short stories by letting Mavis know to send them at mavischeek.co.uk/signup

And you can read more about Mavis Cheek and Dog Days on various blogs this week:

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Rachael de Moravia – News from the Home Front

You may well have heard of crowdfunding initiative Unbound but in case you haven’t, here’s some of the books they’ve had particular success with: Letters of Note, Booker Prize longlisted The Wake and the forthcoming essay collection The Good Immigrant, partially funded by JK Rowling. They’re also very good at funding books which are less likely to find a traditional publisher but are important, covering topics that might not otherwise be written about; Alice Jolly’s Dead Babies and Seaside Towns, for instance. Rachael de Moravia’s book, News from the Home Frontfits into this category. How often have you read about the role of an RAF wife? No, me neither.

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Having heard about de Moravia’s book on Twitter, I contributed to the funding but, because I’m nosy and couldn’t wait for it to be funded to find out more, I contacted Rachael to see if I could ask some questions about the project. Here’s my questions and her replies:

Why did you decide to write about being a military wife?

I never intended to. I’ve never mentioned the military or my connection with it in anything I’ve written. I realised years ago that there are many unfair but widely held stereotypes about military wives that have made me uncomfortable or angry or sad, so I simply stopped mentioning it to new people I met. I was also bored of being asked ‘who is your husband, and what does he do?’ because no one expects military wives to be anything other than military wives.

A few years ago I was at publishing event and was chatting to an editor from one of the big, well-respected publishing houses. We were talking for ages about literature, art, Italy, all sorts – one of those fun and fascinating conversations you remember for ages afterwards and smile when you recollect it. Then someone came along and said, ‘I see you’ve met Rachael – did you know she’s a military wife?’ and the editor I was talking with stopped, shifted about a bit, and said, ‘Really? I’m not sure I would know what to say to a military wife. Do you bake?’

Her sudden- almost violent- change in attitude really threw me, and it made me even more aware of keeping my private (military) life separate from my professional (writing) life. I was worried that these pernicious stereotypes would limit me, define me. And this is really what I wanted to explore in the book: why, in the 21st century, should a woman’s husband’s job define her; and how do you retain independence with the weight of all these years of out-dated, traditional expectations and lazy stereotypes stacked against you.

It was extraordinary when Unbound launched the crowdfunding campaign for NEWS FROM THE HOME FRONT a couple of weeks ago and Scott Pack (associate editor at Unbound) tweeted about my life as an RAF wife. I received so many messages following that tweet from people saying how shocked and surprised they were, how unexpected it was, how they had no idea I was a military wife. Defying and disrupting expectations is one of the vital things art does, so I’m glad this project has achieved this, if it achieves nothing else.

How do you sustain a career, a marriage and a family whilst coping with your husband being absent for long periods and having to move house regularly?

I’m not sure. And I certainly don’t do it very well. I’m constantly anxious, and feel guilty all the time. I don’t sleep much. I used to be organised and disciplined and did everything properly. Now I prioritise clean clothes and fresh food for the children; getting everyone to bed and to school on time; my university work and my writing. I don’t do anything else. That’s as much as I can manage. My husband currently works at a base three hours away, so during the week I’m on my own, and when he works weekend shifts or is away on an exercise or on deployment I’m on my own for weeks or months.

At the moment we live fairly close to family, which is a great help, but we have lived 500 miles away from family support. Military welfare is patchy to non-existent, and in the book I discuss the Armed Forces Covenant, which is designed to look after military families, but which (according to one local authority I spoke to about school places) ‘is completely ineffectual, not worth the paper it’s written on, and we don’t uphold it’.

I won’t go into too much detail now, but I’m fairly Knausgaard in the book when it comes to the minutiae of daily life, and the relentlessness of being a parent. It’s isolating and tiring. I’m sad most of the time because I miss Jon. He’s incredibly clever, sensible and funny, and he’s a great foil for me. I just wish we could be together more often.

I also regret that I’m not very good at keeping in touch with people. I’m thinking of writing a dedication in the front of the book, something like:

“If you wondered what I’ve been doing for the last fifteen years and why I didn’t return your call in 2001, I hope this book serves as some kind of explanation as to why I simply couldn’t.”

Simply couldn’t what? Cope with it all, I suppose.

What’s it like to live on a military base?

I reflect on this at length in the book. The dichotomy of civilian and military communities is one that I find infinitely intriguing. I’ve never understood how it feels normal to have a man with an SA-80 assault rifle standing guard 100 yards from your front door, day and night. I’m not sure it really bothers most people, but I think there’s a weird trust issue at play. For example, if you forget to switch your headlights off as you approach the gate at night, you become a potential security threat – when all you want to do is go home.

I realise it’s standard procedure, and people pass through gate guards all day, every day, but I find it fascinating. Especially the little things, like reminding friends and family to bring their passports when they visit. They can never just pop in for a cuppa on the off-chance you’re in; you have to alert security of an impending visit, arrange to meet at the main gate (preferably in office hours), and sort out ID and car passes every time. And the guns: I’d never seen a gun* before I got married, but my children are growing up seeing armed personnel every day, so it’s completely normal to them. I think that’s horrifying.

*a real, loaded, ready-to-fire gun, that is. I once covered a gun amnesty story as a reporter for a regional radio station and went to see the police haul, but they were mostly museum pieces like pearl-handled pistols and antique blunderbusses.

You’ve read letters and diaries from the wives and girlfriends of airmen in several significant wars, what did you discover?

Love comes above all else and war is hell on earth.

You’ve included discussion of work by Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, amongst others, in the book, what did they bring to your own writing?

I wanted to explore how their experience of women’s lives in the 20th century compared to my own experience. I’ve come to see more clearly how their observations are still relevant today, if not more so.

For example, Septimus in Mrs Dalloway could easily be someone from my life, and I wanted to understand how I could write about a friend who had been away to the theatre of war and come back angry and unpredictable. And Plath, so preoccupied with cooking and domesticity in Ariel, uses the mid-twentieth-century housewife in the kitchen to rail against male dominated global politics and war (in this case, the Cold War). And, for example, when she says “carbon monoxide/ sweetly, sweetly I breathe in,” she’s talking about the silent killer in the home while recalling the gas of WW1 trench warfare. So this, in turn, puts me in mind of the (non-existent) WMDs in the now infamous ‘dodgy dossier’ that lead to Britain and America (and my husband) going to Iraq in 2003. The government told us chemical weapons could reach the UK in 45 minutes: the home front would be under attack and we would all ‘breathe in’. The wars and women writers I discuss span a century, but the themes, consequences, and our reactions, remain the same.

Acclaimed writer Rachel Cusk is editing the book. How did working with her come about?

The book is based on my journals, which Rachel has been reading for a few years. She generously offered to edit the manuscript when I told her I’d signed with a publisher.

Why did you decide to work with Unbounders?

I admire their entrepreneurial attitude and innovation. I like that Unbound’s sales and distribution arm is Penguin Random House. But mostly because I heard a podcast in which Unbound CEO Dan Kieran talks about Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Wind, Sand and Stars and strange twists of fate. I was writing a pedagogical paper for my University’s Academic Development Unit, and I’d decided to frame each section with quote from Saint-Exupéry’s memoir. While I was writing it, the interview with Dan came on and because he was talking about the exact same thing I was writing about it somehow felt serendipitous.

Hmm. Now I mention it, it doesn’t sound like the best way to make a business decision. But it’s a great story.

How can people support your book?

Visit https://unbound.co.uk/books/news-from-the-home-front

There are different reward levels, and pledges start at £10. All patrons get their name printed in the book.

I am so grateful to those who’ve supported me. I realise not everyone interested in this book will be able to buy it, and I’m thankful for their shares, likes and retweets, and for spreading the word. It will only get published when fully funded, so I’ll need all the help I can get!

A huge thank you to Rachael for her responses and here’s hoping the book’s funded soon as it sounds fascinating, important and I’m desperate to read it. For now, I’ll have to make do with the extract below, thanks to Rachael and Unbounders.

On ceramic plates and cupcakes

There is a body in the hall. I step over it when I open the front door. I wrestle it aside so I can put little shoes – sizes five, seven and ten – in the cupboard. The corresponding feet are innocent and skip over the dead weight. I kneel beside it. It’s cold to the touch and I wonder how long it’ll be here this time.

Jon is on two days’ notice to deploy. He’s been on two days’ notice for ten days, his body armour guarding our house. It stands upright, to attention, waiting to be made flesh. My husband’s blood and breath will bring it to life. I hate it, but I examine it – I want to make it less human.

It’s made of a densely-woven metallic fabric. The layers are laminated together for strength, designed to resist stabs and slashes. It’s engineered to catch and deform bullets, to absorb their destructive energy. There are thick, contoured ceramic plates which slip into pockets positioned over vital organs; extra protection for the neck and shoulders, heart and lungs, abdomen, spine and lower back.

The ceramic plates are smooth and heavy and I try to figure out which piece goes where, like a grotesque jigsaw. Once complete, it looks enormous, too large to fit a human. I think of the statues in Florence, the colossal representations of men, and I think of Michelangelo scratching away at the marble, adding muscles and veins. This armour looks big enough for David, I decide.

I am compelled to try it on, but I struggle to lift it, so I lay it gently down and try to crawl inside. I tuck my head and arms in, and as I sit up it slides onto my shoulders. It compresses my chest so I can’t fill my lungs properly and my breathing becomes shallow. I pick up the helmet and notice that Jon has written his name and blood group in permanent ink across the front. I put it on and do up the chinstrap. I’m bulletproof, but I don’t feel safe.

I have to write this feeling, so my enhanced body and I lurch for the laptop so we can describe how we feel. Jon comes home to find me sitting at the kitchen table wearing every scrap of kit that he left in the hall, weeping over the keyboard.
“Are you going somewhere?” he asks.

***

The life of an RAF wife isn’t all about coffee mornings and baking cakes, but sometimes there’s just no escape. Last week I made a dozen cupcakes for a charity fundraiser at the community centre on base. My children are always eager to help in the kitchen, and between them they managed to tip half a bottle of yellow food colouring into the icing sugar. Instead of the subtle, creamy icing I anticipated, we had bright, canary yellow icing.
When I took them to the community centre and handed them over to the woman organising the cake sale, she looked at me aghast.

“They’re yellow,” she said.

“Yes, the kids did a great job helping me.”

“But we’re raising money for people with liver disease.”

“Well, hopefully someone will buy them,” I said.

“But they’re yellow,” she repeated.

I wasn’t quite sure what she meant until I looked around at all the posters of children suffering from liver disease, bright yellow from head to foot with jaundice.
By the end of the week, news of my ‘jaundice cupcakes for liver disease’ gaffe had gone all round the base. My reputation as a subversive baker spread faster than margarine at afternoon tea. I joked at Ladies Poker Night that I’ll bake anything as long as it’s not politically correct. I told them I was thinking of rebranding myself as Mary Berry’s nemesis, a baking antihero: the ultimate anti-caking agent.

To my surprise, a Brigadier’s wife from down the road asked me to make a dog poo cake for her husband. I assumed she wanted a dog poo-shaped cake made of chocolate sponge, not a dog poo in a cake. I didn’t ask her why her husband deserved a dog poo cake. I never thought I would become known for making novelty cakes. Next time we move I think I’ll keep my baking superpowers quiet. I’ll whip up a Victoria Sponge for a good cause if required, but I won’t advertise my catering skills. It’s a label I’m happy to lose. I rather hope my writing is enjoyed as much my amusing cake repertoire: I prefer writing to baking.

To fill the time between coffee-mornings and afternoon teas, I’ve been reading TS Eliot. I haven’t read the Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock for at least ten years. It’s such a different poem now; I feel the words more acutely. ‘I have measured out my life in coffee spoons’ feels so apt these days, only I seem to be measuring out my life in cupcakes.

Ghostbird – Carol Lovekin

In a Welsh village where it rains every day in August, fourteen-year-old Cadi Hopkins begins to ask questions about her dead father and sister and why she’s not allowed to go to the lake.

The story she had grown up with was straightforward. Her sister drowned in a tragic accident and her mother couldn’t bear to talk about it. Then her father died too, and talking about that freaked her mother out so much it was frightening. She was already pregnant with me when he died. No wonder she hates me.

Cadi lives with her mother, Violet, with whom she’s locked in an intensified teenage daughter/mother battle. Cadi’s aunt/Violet’s sister-in-law, Lili, lives next door and acts as a surrogate mother to Cadi. Lili also has a contentious relationship with Violet.

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From early in the book, magic makes its presence felt: the ghost of Dora, Cadi’s sister ‘sits at the base of the tree overlooking the lake’ and, as the novel progresses, grows in strength, coming to Cadi’s consciousness, haunting her outside and inside her house. Lili is a witch.

Lili’s particular talent was for glamours which, rather than having the drama of invisibility, rendered her unimportant. Her mother told her anyone could do it, if only they had the patience to apply themselves. If Lili chose to, she could pass virtually unseen.

Gwenllian taught Lili that nature resisted arrogance and most spells were cast by the ill-advised. Magic, she said, was as much about common sense and intention as it was about spells. ‘I have recipes and cures; blessings and healings. Don’t ask me for spells, cariad; spells are for fools. If people need you, they’ll find you. And always be wary of showing your hand. When a certain type of person believes you have a gift, they’ll do anything to get you to use it.’

As Cadi becomes aware of her own gift, the family’s past begins to unravel.

Lovekin considers whether family secrets can be kept and – perhaps more interestingly – who has a right to those secrets and whether collaboration in keeping them can be demanded. She examines that most contentious of relationships between mother and daughter, accurately portraying the antagonism that can occur between this pairing and how it often plays out. This is also shown through Cadi and Lili whose relationship – while much stronger than that of Cadi and Violet – is not unproblematic.

The use of magic realism through the presence of Dora’s ghost is well done. Plausible through its roots in nature and Cadi’s awakening of both her own gift and the reality of her father’s and sister’s deaths. Nature becomes a character in its own right through the village, the lake and the rain. Lovekin’s adept at setting and atmosphere; not only could I picture the village, I could feel and smell the rain and the natural world after it’d ended too.

Ghostbird is an engaging, female-centred narrative that, in terms of atmosphere, reminded me of Kate Atkinson’s Human Croquet. A debut well worth a few hours of your time.

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Photograph by Janey Stevens

I’m delighted to welcome the author of Ghostbird Carol Lovekin to the blog to discuss the novel.

At the core of Ghostbird is the relationship between a mother, a teenage daughter and a daughter who died when she was very young. Why did you decide to make that particular relationship central to the novel?

Telling and re-claiming women’s stories has been important to me for as long as I can recall. Probably since I discovered feminism – when I was seventeen and decided it made more sense than any other form of political activism. I’ve listened to women all my life – not least as a rape crisis counsellor and a Samaritan volunteer. Everything of lasting and authentic value to me has been gifted by women.

My fascination with the nature of loss and survival, and how women in particular deal with it is deeply personal and informs the way I’ve chosen to become a storyteller. Fiction is the ideal vehicle to tell women’s collective and individual stories. It’s emotional and involving. The writer can create nuances in situations that may touch her reader on a profoundly affecting level.

Violet’s grief plays a huge part in Ghostbird. In the early stages of writing the book I confess her misery felt relentless. Eventually I recognised that was why I needed to find a way to get underneath her skin, empathise with her and love her.

One way or another, each of the central characters in the novel is a potential victim. They are Teilo’s victims in the same way Blodeuwedd was a victim of Math and Gwydion in the legendary and patriarchal past of The Mabinogion – in particular, Violet, Cadi and Dora. But also Lili, whose life is equally touched by her brother’s disposition and decisions.

The myth of Blodeuwedd seemed the perfect backdrop for a contemporary story about women surviving the consequences of a modern day man’s egotism and machinations. It was never my intention to demonise Teilo – I have some sympathy for him and I trust my reader to see that. The fact remains, he bears a great deal of responsibility for what happened to all the women in his life.

A sense of magic runs throughout the book: Lili identifies as a witch and writes fairytales for a living; Dora’s presence threads throughout, and Cadi’s own awareness that she has a talent grows. How did you go about making this plausible for the reader?

Lili’s insistence that the magic must be respected is part of my own ethos. I’m an eco-feminist and believe that women aren’t part of nature – we are nature. We are the birds and the ebb of the ocean; we are weeds and moths and lionesses. Even though Lili refuses to cast spells, I wanted her wisdom to attach to Cadi and for there to be a sense of a heritage being passed on. I’m asking my reader to consider that when women embrace authentic magic, the kind that is part of their psyche and autonomy, their voices will be heard. Even at the tender age of fourteen, Cadi can tentatively begin to alter consciousness, heal wounds and sing her truth. Dora – the innocent catalyst – is a baby ghost who has no idea what she is doing. In spite of this, eventually and joyously her song is heard too.

The novel’s set in Wales, uses a Welsh myth and has Welsh words scattered throughout. How important to you was it that it was rooted in Wales?

West Wales has been my home for a long time. The landscape illuminates my writing and even if I hadn’t decided to base the novel – however loosely – around the myth, I would have set any story I conjured in Wales. I love the cadences of the language; it felt important to use it. Blodeuwedd would have been a Welsh speaker anyway so it made sense for the ghost to occasionally speak it. Although my own grasp of Welsh remains rudimentary, I understand a fair bit. Welsh isn’t Lili’s or Cadi’s first language either, but they too know enough for it to be scattered throughout their conversation.

Nature plays an important role in the story, not least the rain! Indeed, it feels like a character in its own right. How do you view its place in the book?

I appreciate that, Naomi – it was my intention to make the rain a character. (And incidentally, there’s a name for a lover of rain: a pluviophile.)

Living in Wales, a relationship with rain is inevitable. You either exist in a state of perpetual frustration or learn to accept and even love it. As I walk a good deal and the places I choose are often by rebellious rivers, along wild beaches or through boggy woodland, I decided on the latter and invested in a long raincoat.

Once I moved to where I live now I acquired a small study. There was only one place for my desk – next to a window, overlooking the hills. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve compared the windowpane to a Jackson Pollock painting (grey period.) I became increasingly intrigued by how rain shaped the landscape. In the book, I’ve tried to make it a visual language, an accompaniment to the story. It’s also a metaphor for tears, in Violet’s case, unshed for too long. And tears, as Clarissa Pinkola Estés says in Women Who Run With The Wolves, ‘are a river that takes you somewhere.’

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?

What a lush question! My favourite writer is Virginia Woolf. I became mesmerised by her vision in my early twenties and remain fascinated by her writing. Although I adore her novels, it’s her letters and diaries I still find most intriguing and inspiring. A Writer’s Diary never leaves my bedside.

As a teenager I fell in love with Charlotte Brontë. I read Jane Eyre every year and couldn’t resist making it the book Cadi reads. Other writers for whom I have a huge admiration include A S Byatt, Edna O’Brien, Margaret Atwood and Susan Hill. Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle is one of my best loved books. I admire Island book. (I shall never be persuaded to read, Go Set a Watchman!)

Some of the women writers who shaped my politics as a young woman are Doris Lessing, Germaine Greer, Mary Daly, Kate Millet and the inestimable Simone du Beauvoir.

I’m an admirer of numberless contemporary British women writers, including Maggie O’Farrell, Kate Atkinson, Carys Bray, Geraldine Brooks, Joanne Harris, Judith Kinghorn and Sarah Winman. I recently discovered Louise Beech, Rebecca Mascull and Sarah Louise Jasmon. And Sarah Hilary blew my socks off! She reconnected me to the pleasure of a great crime thriller, this time with a fantastic female central character. I’ve learned a lot from many of these more recently published women writers, about how to ‘be’ as a newly published author myself.

Ending with my tongue in my cheek (because no one likes a crawler), I adore the wit of Dorothy Parker. I hope I haven’t gone on too much. As Ms Parker herself said, ‘Brevity is the soul of lingerie.’

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A huge thank you to Carol for such a great insight into the ideas contained within the novel and to Honno for the review copy.

 

Sarayu Srivatsa on If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here

One of my ‘Ones to Read in 2016‘ was Sarayu Srivatsa’s Man Asian Literary Prize longlisted  If You Look For Me, I Am Not HereEngrossing and innovative in terms of language use and its take on gender, I absolutely loved it. I’m delighted to welcome Sarayu to the blog to talk about the book.

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Where did the idea for If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here come from?

I have lived in Mumbai (Bombay) for 30 years and I belong to the architectural and building fraternity. The first draft of the novel was about architecture and building; its characters were shaped from a combination of people I knew. It was set in Bombay. But then I thought if I were to write about someone, somewhere and about something I didn’t know, the work would be more imaginative.

I chose one character from the first draft, an entirely imagined one – Siva, a 60-year-old male lawyer, who likes to dress up in women’s clothes just before an important case. I needed to know why he did this so I started the story at the very beginning – before he was born. I hadn’t come across any person like Siva; he was entirely shaped in my mind.

I chose Machilipatnam – a small town on the east coast of India as the setting for the story. I have never been to Machilipatnam. I don’t know anyone who lives there or has been there. I created the town based on basic research about its history, geography, climate etc.. I drew a map of the town actually – the quarter where the protagonist lives, and followed it consistently through the book.

When the MS was almost ready I presented the story at a workshop conducted by the London Script Factory organised by the British Council in Mumbai. I had misgivings about the story and wondered if I should abandon it. I met a young scriptwriter who told me the story had touched him. His mother had brought him up as a girl since she had had 3 boys and she longed for a daughter. His father was forced to send him to boarding school to distance him for his mother. His life story encouraged me to stick to my imagined one.

As I was working with an unfamiliar subject and character I needed to do serious exploration. I talked to doctors and psychologists. At one point in the writing of the novel I couldn’t relate to Siva’s thoughts and feelings. His was a difficult life. I came across an advert on hypnosis. I met the hypnotherapist on a whim, and asked her if she would hypnotise me as Siva. He was in my head after all. The therapist, rather surprised, as she had never before done this, warned me of the consequences – I would have to deal with stuff of my own life I may have blocked in my mind, she said. After the hypnosis session, which helped me focus deep, I must admit, the story was clearer to me, at least from Siva’s point of view.

The novel looks at gender and the idea of one body containing both the masculine and the feminine. What made you decide to explore this issue?

The idea of a body containing both the masculine and feminine is not new to Hindu religion. (I am not religious, I must quickly add). God Shiva in his ardhnareshwari avatar (in translation the word means half-woman) is half man and woman. The Gods Krishna and Vishnu are capable of changing into their female incarnations at will. Hijras or transwomen (male-to female transsexual or transgender individuals) are an integral part of Indian society. I had a long converstion with a hijra once (when I was working on a non-fiction book), and perhaps, subconsciously, this prompted me to explore the gender issue. Besides, I wanted to examine the idea of nurture versus nature in connection to gender at birth and after. Heredity determines physiological differences in males and females. On the other hand, how a child is raised influences its psychologiacl development. Every culture promotes gender-specific behaviors for males and females.  Any deviation from traditional gender stereotypes becames glaringly obvious. I tried to to explore this in the novel.

You play with language throughout the novel. I particularly loved the way you use it to recreate the sound of the weather and the attempts at words young children make. Why did you decide to do so rather than describe these things to the reader?

My father was in government service and was posted to villages when I was a child. I didn’t get to go to a school. My mother taught me English (her kind) and maths at home. I didn’t have any access to children’s books. I depended on my instincts and imagination. The sounds of nature became my language. Besides, I learnt Indian classical dance from a very young age. Rhythm and sound are the skin of my thoughts, and often I find myself using words because of the quality of their sound, rather than just their meaning. In my mind I have a feeling for words that soar, plunge or are inert and flat. The selection of words is so instinctive that I am unaware of the choices I make. Indian English, the way it’s spoken, differs from state to state in this country – this adds a curious and amusing local flavour to the language. Language is inventive in India – and children invent their very own language.

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Why did you decide to incorporate a different type of text in the form of George Gibbs’ ledger?

Machilipatnam is known for its vegetable dyes and the craft of dying cloth. It is also a port where the English East India Company set up their trading post to export dyes and cloth to England. I felt compelled to use both these facts in the novel. The idea of George Gibbs, an East India Company factor, who traded in dyes, was born as a result. George Gibbs story although a parallel but a shorter one to Siva’s establishes the historical reference for the town. But it was difficult to incorporate it within the main idea i.e. Siva’s story. At first I started the book with Gibbs’ story leading on to Siva’s but this didn’t seem to work. I tried alternate chapters but George’s part was very short, and therefore inconstant. Consequently, I fattened up his story a bit, got hold of a very ancient ledger and coaxed it into it. I made the ledger appear at fitting times intercepting Siva’s story. I used a different type of text so that it could at once be recognised as Gibbs’ story, separate from Siva’s.

When it was published in India (as The Last Pretence) the novel was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize; how did it feel to be placed on such a prestigious list?

I remember I was travelling when my agent called me with the news. All I could do in response was giggle. For one thing, I am not a trained writer, for another, I use the English language differently and in my own way; I feel discomfited about this, and feel a bit anxious amongst people who use the language confidently. I found it rather amusing that my work should get selected for an international prize. It was only much later and particularly when the media chose to write about it that it dawned on me – that my MS had made it to a prestigious list. The unexpected is so much more flavoursome.

Can you tell us anything about what you’re working on at the moment?

I have been working on another novel. It is a sequel of sorts – a number of lives in the novel – If you look for me – have to be sorted out. I had finished the MS more than a year ago but I had left it to marinate in my mind. Now that the novel – If you look for me – is out and it has had some response to it, I intend to continue work on the second MS.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?

Here are some of my favourite authors and their books I like –

Murasaki Shikibu – The tale of Genji

Sei Shonagon – The pillow book

Liza Dalby – East wind melts the ice

Djuna Barnes – Nightwood (a difficult book though)

Toni Morrison – Home

Doris Lessing – Ben, in the world

Iris Murdoch – The sea, the sea

Joan Didion – The year of magical thinking

A S Byatt – The Matisse stories

Amelie Nothomb – The character of Rain

Banana Yoshimoto – Asleep

Maya Angelou – I know why the caged bird sings

Jean Rhys – Wide Sargasso Sea

Nadine Gordimer – The Pickup

Carol Shields – Unless

Shani Montoo – Cereus blooms at night

 

A huge thanks to Sarayu Srivatsa for the interview and to Bluemoose Books. If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here is available now.

Antonia Honeywell on The Ship + giveaway

Giveaway now closed.

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It’s paperback publication day for another of my books of 2015 today, The Ship by Antonia Honeywell. I’m delighted to have Antonia on the blog discussing The Ship and her first year as a published writer. I’ve reposted my original review below and W&N have kindly given me a copy for one of you to win. Details of how to enter are at the bottom of the post. But first, it’s over to Antonia.

Antonia Honeywell copyright Chris Honeywell

A number of reviewers have described Lalla as ‘unlikeable’. I’m fascinated by this as I think the idea that characters are unlikeable is inextricably tied to society’s idea of how females should act. Do you think Lalla’s unlikeable?

No, I don’t.

There.

There’s a longer answer, of course which goes something like this: Right up until the day she turns sixteen, Lalla is sheltered to an incredible extent. Her parents make sure that she has food; they try and educate her; most significantly for Lalla, though, they don’t allow her any contact with other people. Other wealthy families have left London; the Pauls have elected to stay and follow another path, and Lalla’s crippling loneliness is part of the price. She’s given no choice. There are other people in London. Lalla’s mother, Anna, often visits the community that’s established itself in the British Museum. Her father, Michael, is often away, doing the deals by which he stocks the ship. He’s worked for the military government. And yet neither of them ever folds Lalla into these interactions. They won’t even take her to the holding centre, where the people of the ship are gathered prior to their departure.

Now I’m not saying that it’s easy to arrange playdates in a post-apocalyptic wilderness. I am saying that Lalla’s never given the chance to form relationships of her own. Every experience she has is moderated by her parents. And her parents go to great lengths to make sure that, once on board the ship, Lalla will be surrounded by people whose world view agrees with theirs.

So when Lalla begins to ask questions, there is no one to help her. Every single person on the ship – however kind they are – has a vested interest in keeping Lalla from growing up. Her developing awareness is constantly held in check. There is only one path laid out for her, and not only must she follow it, but she has to be grateful, too. Because the whole thing was done for her.

Historically, men and women have both been subject to a level of societal expectation. I’d argue that, for men, those expectations have included far more opportunity. To men, the education, the adventure, the pioneering. To women, the domestic and the drudgery. Princes fight dragons; princesses are bestowed as a reward. And gratitude for thrown crumbs is part of the women’s package.

To me, Lalla is heroic for questioning, then standing against, the consequences of a choice she was given no part in making. She has to find the courage to reject a gift that was been procured for her at great trouble and expense. And she has to trust her own instinct when not one single person around her supports or encourages her to do so. To those who find it hard to like her, I’d say only this: I’m doing this for you is the lie abusers have told their victims throughout history.

Who are your favourite female protagonists and did any of them inspire the creation of Lalla?

There are so many. Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch, forging her own path at huge personal cost. Lucy Snowe from Villette, learning that love lies not in being absorbed by another, but in working alongside them. The heroines of Kate Chopin and Sarah Grand, showing the price of standing against a society that dictates who and what you must be. Emily, the young girl in Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor, rebelling and needing approval all at the same time. And Angela Carter’s women – particularly the twins in Wise Children and the fairytale characters of The Bloody Chamber – laughing and having sex and bleeding and suffering and being shamelessly fabulous. Sometimes all at the same time. They’re all there in Lalla. If it’s anything at all, The Ship is the story of Lalla coming to realise this for herself.

There’s been a change to the cover for the paperback, particularly in terms of the colour scheme. Can you tell us about the process of deciding on a cover?

The hardback cover went through three or four drafts, each very different. The first draft showed the prow of the ship with a tiny figure on the stern, all in greys and yellows. One draft had a series of stylised waves in front of a London skyline; another a sunset. The publisher proposes the images; they then go to agent and author, and a dialogue ensues. The final cover brought together the best features of all the drafts – the figure of Lalla looking back at London brought a real human interest to an already powerful image, particularly once we started taking chunks out of the London landmarks. The paperback design brings out the more lyrical aspects of the novel; I particularly love the flock of birds escaping the constraints of the image of St Paul’s cathedral.

I love both the covers. The hardback is brighter and bolder; the paperback more impressionistic and reflective.

You’re an avid reader and I know you read many books listed for prizes. What impact do you think this has on your writing?

Yes – I’m really looking forward to shadowing the Baileys prize with you and the others again this year. I know there’s at least one book we’re going to have an extremely robust discussion about. The reason I read so many prize listed books is that I don’t feel I can argue strongly for the books I love unless I’ve read all the others. The disadvantage to this, of course, is that it takes a great deal of reading time. Since I’ve been published, I find myself less and less aware of the books that aren’t being pushed by their publishers. I tend to read all the proofs I’m sent (I don’t get sent as many as you!) – and that, of course, means I’m automatically reading books that are getting support. I’m finding that the publishing industry tends to focus lots of attention on just a few new titles – so I end up reading those. Some are wonderful, some less so, but I need to give more time to seeking out the excellent writing that’s happening under the radar. There’s a lot of it.

Reading’s always gone hand in hand with writing for me. I find inspiration, challenge and pure entertainment in the books I read. If I don’t read, I can’t write – it really is as simple as that.

What’s been the best thing about your first year as a published author?

Without a doubt, the people I’ve met as a direct result of publication. People who take the time to organise events. The bloggers – like you – who’ve been kind enough to give The Ship their energy and attention, and with whom I’ve enjoyed brilliant book discussions. Other writers, both published and aspiring. The booksellers. And above all, the readers – anyone who finds themselves lost in a book, whether that’s The Ship or anything else. Readers are the reason that writers are able to do what they do, and I’m grateful to every single one of them.

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I don’t have any answers, Lalla. Only questions. That’s how you learn.

We’re in the future but not so far into the future that the world’s unrecognisable:

I was seven when the collapse hit Britain. Banks crashed, the power failed, flood defences gave way, and my father paced the flat, strangely elated in the face of my mother’s fear…Across the country, people lost their homes, the supermarkets emptied and the population stood, stunned and helpless, in the streets. My father watched the riots and the looting, the disasters and the forced evictions on every possible channel; he had the computer, his phone and his tablet and juggled them constantly, prowling about the flat and never seeming to sleep. The government resigned, and then came the tanks, and the troops with their terrible guns. My father vanished. Oxford Street burned for three weeks, and I watched the orange skies from the circle of my mother’s arms, weeping for him.

Our narrator is Lalage, who turns sixteen in the opening pages of the novel. Her father, Michael Paul, returns soon after his disappearance having sold his invention, the Dove, to the military government. The Dove registers people’s ‘screens’ (tablets) and they’re given an identity card with their screen address encoded, traceable by satellite. Important information is communicated via screen so those registered ‘got the information they needed to survive’.

The Dove makes Michael Paul a very rich man. As the world disintegrates, he uses that money to build a ship; a future for Lalla (as her father calls her), a safe haven.

On Lalage’s birthday, her father brings her a diamond he’s swapped for a tin of peaches. As St. James’ Park is bombed, eradicating those attempting to build an alternative society outside government control, Lalage’s parents argue about whether it’s time to move onto the ship. When Lalage’s mother hears a scream on the street, she moves to the window and is shot. The only place with the equipment and expertise to save her is the ship; they leave immediately.

The ship is a version of paradise, stocked with everything you might need and more. At her first meal, Lalage is served chicken and pineapple cake. She hasn’t tasted chicken in five years and has never seen pineapple before. Her father presents her with a screen and reveals it contains photographs of exhibits from every museum and art gallery. She begins to get to know the people on board and realises that they’ve been chosen by her father to be part of his dream. But Lalage isn’t clear as to exactly what that dream is; where is the ship going and what are her father’s intentions?

The doctor was right; I had never felt pain. I had never felt loss, or hunger, or genuine fear either. My parents protected me so well from what the world had become that I had no means to navigate it. They had surrounded me, made their plans to keep me safe, made sure that my only compass through life was my own experience of it. And it wasn’t enough. How could it have been? A lifetime ago, the sun had set in front of the infirmary door. Soon, it would rise on the other side of the ship. Already the sky was imperceptibly lighter, like a screen that has just been turned off. And as the light grew clearer and brighter, I realised that my parents had been wrong. That, far from being the pivot around which the world turned, I was smaller than a mote of dust, less significant than a gnat.

While Lalage’s mother has tried to show her the realities of the world she’s been living in, both she and Michael Paul have protected her from any real experience of them. It means she’s naïve and initially, unquestioning. It takes the first traumatic event on the ship to make her realise this, after which, she begins to listen to the stories of those around her and slowly begins to wonder what other people want from life and ultimately what she wants.

Although set in the future, The Ship reflects the time we’re living in. It raises questions of wealth and poverty; of governments who fail to protect all their citizens; of the value of art and artefacts. It also prods at religion and asks why people value it despite its failure to deliver any concrete solutions. As Lalage questions her father’s motives, the reader questions what led to them, particularly as the stories of the characters on the ship are revealed.

The novel’s tightly plotted with a number of surprising twists. Occasionally, Lalage’s naivety means the reader realises the twist before Lalla does. When this happens, the dramatic irony serves to heighten the tension as you wonder what her reaction will be when the truth is revealed to her.

The Ship has the language and ideas of a literary novel, combined with the pacing and twists of a thriller. It’s an impressive debut.

 

As I mentioned W&N have kindly provided a copy for one of you to win. All you need to do is leave a comment below saying who your favourite female protagonist is. Entries are open until 5pm (UK) Sunday 12th March. The giveaway is open to readers in the UK and Ireland only. The winner will be drawn at random and notified as soon as possible after the close of entries.

Huge thanks to Antonia Honeywell for the interview and to W&N for the giveaway.

I’ve allocated everyone a number in order of entry:

1 – Janet Emson
2 – Cathy746Books
3 – Elle
4 – Sarah
5 – Laura
6 – Rebecca Foster
7 – CPhillipou123
8 – Sophie Glorita
9 – Sakura
10 – Amy
11 – Matthewclarkleech
12 – Claire Davies

And the random number generator says:

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Congratulations to Sakura – check your email for what to do next – and thanks to everyone else who entered.

 

At the Edge of the Orchard – Tracy Chevalier + Q&A

Today, I’m completely and utterly thrilled to have an insight into Tracy Chevalier’s work from the woman herself. You can find out more about her writing below my review of her absolutely brilliant new novel, At the Edge of the Orchard.

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Sadie was smirking into her pie. “War,” she said, and got up to go to the bottle of applejack.

Is this a war? James thought as he escaped the airless cabin. Because if it was, he would surely lose, as his wife was more experienced than he was at cruelty and ruthlessness. It was also easier to go on the offensive, as she did, than to defend, as he must his trees.

James Goodenough grows, grafts and tends apple trees in the Black Swamp, Ohio. He has a preference for eaters; his wife, Sadie, a preference for spitters so she can drink the product of them. They fight about this often.

To legally claim the land they’re growing on, they needed to grow fifty fruit trees in the first three years. To help them in doing so, they bought saplings they couldn’t really afford from John Chapman, a tree seller. James is still paying the debt while John brings Sadie Applejack and flirts with her.

James takes comfort in numbers and explains to Sadie how they’ll finally exceed the legal requirement for the amount of fruit producing trees on their land.

Today Sadie’s response to the numbers he laid out in his argument was even blunter. “Fuck your numbers,” she said. “You ain’t never gonna reach fifty, much less fifty-three.”

Disrespect for numbers was what made James slap her – though he wouldn’t have if she’d still held the knife.

She responded by going for him with her fists, and got in a jab to the side of his head before he wrestled her back into her seat and slapped her again. At least she didn’t manage to catch an eye as she had done once; his neighbors enjoyed teasing James about the shiner his wife had given him. Buckeye, they called it, after the chestnuts so common in Ohio. Lots of wives sported buckeyes; not so many husbands.

The couple have ten children; five are still alive: Caleb, Sal, Martha, Nathan and Robert. It is Robert, ‘a mystery – a changeling’ to James and for Sadie, ‘I loved him best cause he seemed to come from a different place to the rest of us’, whose story becomes the focus as the book progresses.

Robert’s the only child interested in the trees. He pays attention to his father’s work with them and learns to successfully graft his own. The second section of the novel contains a series of letters from him, all written on New Years’ Day from 1840-1856, charting his journey from the swamp through a series of jobs. He stops writing after failing to receive any replies.

In the third section of the novel, Robert meets William Lobb, an English plant collector, and begins to work for him. The rest of the novel both charts Robert’s life from that point but also looks back to the Black Swamp and the events that led to him leaving.

Chevalier uses a range of voices to tell the story – James’ story and most of Robert’s are told through a third person subjective viewpoint; there are letters included from both Robert and his sister, Martha, showing their progress in learning to write, but the most interesting and compelling voice is that of Sadie.

Sadie’s given short pieces, told in first person, written in her spoken voice:

I never wanted to live in the Black Swamp. Who would? It aint a name that draws you in. You get stuck there, more like – stuck in the mud and cant go no farther, so you stay cause theres land and no people, which was what we were lookin for.

She’s a brilliant character. Vile to her husband and her children when she’s been on the Applejack; she’s unhappy with the hand life’s dealt her, particularly knowing her husband’s more interested in his trees than her. She takes her pleasures where she can get them and her pleasures come largely in hurting those closest to her. The scenes between her and James where they bicker and fight are vividly rendered; an excellent portrait of a marriage turned as sour as some of the apples their trees produce.

While Robert’s a quiet, enigmatic character, the people he surrounds himself with aren’t and his travelling around makes for some interesting tales. Some of which, Chevalier says in the afterword to the novel, are based on truth and real people.

Chevalier explores familial relationships, whether the past ever leaves you and whether it’s possible to change and start anew. Chevalier transports the reader to American swamps and groves bringing them and the characters within them to life.

If you’d told me a fortnight ago that I would love a novel written about trees, I’d have laughed, but At the Edge of the Orchard is a superb novel. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it on tomorrow’s Bailey’s Prize longlist.

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Could you describe your writing rituals: How many hours a day to you devote to writing? Do you write a draft on paper or at a keyboard (typewriter or computer)?

I probably write for 3 hours a day but I spread it out over 10 hours. So I’m often doing other things in between: answering email and phone calls, writing other stuff, researching procrastinating. I draft on paper, then type what I’ve written every few days into the computer. I print out a draft and rework it on paper, then make corrections on screen. I hate screens. Typing like that is not creative at all. Pen and paper is much more organic for me.

What is more important for you when you write your novels, plot or characterisation? For example when an idea for a new novel comes to you, is it usually plot or character driven?

Both are important, but character usually comes first, and I work out the plot around the characters I’ve created.

Which writers from history would you most like to read and critique your books and why?

Oo, that’s hard. Can I choose other people? I would dearly love to know what Vermeer thought of my novel about him and his paintings. I have also written a novel, Remarkable Creatures, about the fossil hunter Mary Anning. I would love to meet her and talk to her about her life.

If you could live in any of the periods where your novels are set, which would it be?

I have a hankering to live in 17th-century Holland. I looked at a lot of Dutch paintings of the period when I wrote Girl with a Pearl Earring, and a lot since, and I think I get the people and how they lived. I would be comfortable there with all the sweeping, the bedwarmers, the skating, the moments of domestic calm and the drunken tavern scenes…

Which work of fiction do you most wish you had written?

Beloved by Toni Morrison. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. Hemingway short stories. Anna Karenina. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner.

Are there any classics you have lied about reading (the most common answer is War and Peace, for example!)?

Proust. OK, I admit it, I’ve only read about 30 pages. And maybe 50 pages of Don Quixote. I haven’t tried War and Peace at all, but have just seen the BBC TV adaptation and loved it (I had no idea it was such a soap opera), so I am going to give it a try!

What are your favourite literary heroines and why?

My favourites are from books I read as a child: Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables, Laura Ingalls in the Little House books, Pippi Longstocking. I’m drawn to strong characters full of adventure. Oh, and of course Jane Eyre: she is strong and determined, and beautifully plays the underdog who triumphs.

A huge thanks to Tracy and to Borough Press for the Q&A and a review copy of the novel.

 

Shelley Harris on Vigilante

It’s paperback publication day for one of my favourite novels of last year. Vigilante by Shelley Harris is the story of Jenny Pepper, average middle aged mum who becomes a real-life superhero. I’ve reposted my original review below but before you get to that, I had the privilege of talking to Shelley about the book. I think you’ll agree that her responses are fantastic.

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Photograph by Cath Harries

One of the reasons I love Vigilante is because Jenny Pepper, ordinary middle-aged woman, could be me (and I’m sure I’m not the only woman who feels that way about her). Could you tell us a bit about how she came into being?

Well, she’s me too – and here’s why: when I turned forty I experienced a bit of an … I don’t know what to call it exactly. ‘Crisis’ sounds a bit dramatic. ‘Event’ sounds a bit British. I think I was in a sort of midlife crisis, truth be told; I’d ended up very, very far from where I’d wanted to be.

As one of my ways of dealing with this, I did an odd thing: I started leaving poems anonymously around my small town. I’d put each one in an envelope marked ‘To Whom It May Concern’ (itself the title of a favourite poem by Adrian Mitchell; this gave me a geeky joy). Then I’d leave them in appropriate places: Wordsworth’s ‘The World Is Too Much With Us’ in the supermarket, Frank O’ Hara’s ‘A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island’ in the park and so on. The recipients had no idea who’d put them there, and I had no idea what happened to these poems after I left them – whether people just chucked them in the bin or never opened them at all, or loved them, or what.

It sounds odd to say it, but doing that really, really helped me. Something about doing secret things, I think: having a part of me that no-one else owned or even knew about. And then I thought: what if a woman felt like me, and did secret good deeds to help herself feel better? What if she did them dressed as a superhero? And what if, after a while, she couldn’t function properly without that persona? So Jenny was born.

Jenny’s a hero but society sells us the idea that heroes are men, they’re brave and strong and superhuman. Is this your contribution to a redefining of what a hero can be?

Yes, absolutely. And for me it’s obviously about her being a woman, but also about the ‘superhuman’ bit of that question. I’ve found the most remarkable ordinary heroes as I’ve gone through life; we are capable of incredible things. A friend of mine runs a club for vulnerable schoolkids; I discovered recently that the cuts had actually left it unfunded for a year but she kept going anyway, unpaid, because those kids had nowhere else to go. Another friend managed to start a successful writing career in tandem with bringing up her children and being a carer for her parents. That’s what I’m interested in: not glittering lives, but amazing ordinary ones, in ordinary small towns.

The male gaze, the way men (and boys) view women’s bodies and the effect this has on women and girls is one of the key themes of the novel. What message do you want women (and men?) to take from the book?

Often in stories like this, when a woman goes through great emotional changes, her body changes too: the classic makeover, so that by the end she’s acceptable to the male gaze. HOW VERY DULL. It would have been easy for Jenny to get leaner and fitter as the story went on. It would have been easy to show her as wasp-waisted and high-heeled when she fought crime. But I don’t want readers to think she’s OK because she’s thin and beautiful; I could not be less interested in that. Jenny is fat, and she stays fat. She fights crime in flat DMs because only an idiot tries to do it in heels. The men who ignore her at the start of the book carry on ignoring her. So what? She’s a bloody goddess.

What message does that send? To women: stuff the patriarchal values which say you’re only worth something if you’re aesthetically pleasing. You’re a person, not a thing.

To men? This just in: our job is not to be pretty.

The plot of Vigilante has a crime at its centre and a mystery to be solved. How do you go about plotting that, particularly making sure you provide the reader with enough information to keep them gripped without giving too much away?

Oh boy. There’s a particular fiendishness in constructing a crime plot which, as you say, Vigilante is – sort of. There’s a rational line of cause and effect (the ‘truth’ the story is searching for) which you have to disrupt with red herrings, incomplete revelations and misinterpretations, all the while laying a trail of authentic clues.

To get the balance right – that not-too-little-not-too-much you asked about – it helps to remember this truth: no character thinks they’re in a story. And in Jenny’s case, even if she did, she wouldn’t think it was a detective story. When we see the world through her eyes we have to be attentive to what she might be missing, or misreading.

I kept all this in mind, plus there was a fair amount of trial and error. I was also keenly aware that when the writer knows someone’s guilty they’re liable to signal it unconsciously (especially me, because I’m transparent) so I relied on beta readers to catch those tells.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?

Sarah Waters, of course, whose novels I buy on the day they come out and keep going back to. Kressman Taylor, who changed her name to sound more male because – not-so fun fact – her editor and her husband both thought Address Unknown (1938) was ‘too strong to appear under the name of a woman’. It’s a masterpiece, and one of the stories I most often recommend. From the same era, Mollie Panter-Downes was an outstanding writer of short stories. Her collection Good Evening, Mrs Craven (Persephone) is a joy.

Other women writers I love: Lissa Evans, Karen Campbell, Ali Smith, Favel Parrett and… oh, loads and loads, Naomi. I’ll think of twenty more in the next half an hour and curse myself for not listing them.

Huge thanks to Shelley. I’m off to check out the authors from that list I hadn’t heard of before. Here’s my repost of my review of Vigilante with a picture of the fabulous new cover design.

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Before I was a superhero, you could have walked into my life at any moment, and I’d have been tidying up. Sorting, discarding, relocating: it was my life’s work. And it was exactly what I was doing the night I discovered Elliot’s secret.

Jenny Pepper, 42, manager of a charity bookshop, married to Elliot, graphic designer, with a 14-year-old daughter, Martha, is fed-up of her life. As the novel begins, she is tidying up after her family; Martha is at a friend’s house and Elliot’s at an award ceremony. When she goes into the study, she notices their wedding album poking out of the shelf. Picking it up to look through it, a comic book, drawn by Elliot drops out, the hero Vermilion based on Elliot – he has his eyes. Jen’s impressed with the visuals until she sees the woman who needs to be rescued – ‘She was dressed in a scrap of material cut low over the solid globes of her breasts, high across her hairless groin.’

Once in a while I’d chosen to share with Elliot some of my despair over the way my body had run out of control, and every time he’d been admirably supportive: I love your body, you’ve always been beautiful, aren’t we lucky to be growing older together? Blah blah blah. But look at this, now! This wasn’t just a comic book. It was a window into his desires, and this was what he wanted: big tits, tiny waist, hairless fanny. It wasn’t off-the-peg porn, either. He designed it himself, and he wanted the stuff you cannot have without surgery and childlessness and the kind of constant attention that women like me can’t give themselves.

Jenny doesn’t tell him she’s found the comic. A few days later in the shop, sorting through a donation, Jen finds a fancy dress mask which she initially puts in a pile of unwanted things but there’s her boss Allie’s fancy dress party to prepare for and Jen has an idea.

The first thing I saw was red. Red on my lips, red lacing up the front of my black corset, red lining my black cape, framing the shape of my body. I saw what the shape was, that it was less shaming than I’d feared it might be; the out of breasts rendered voluptuous by the twin forces of the corset and a push-up bra, the in of my waist not the sharp descent I’d want – the bowed line of boning, the roll of fat between corset and skirt – but an in nonetheless. Slung low on my hips, a toolbelt (keys, mobile phone, likely-looking knife designed for cutting cheese). My fists clenched in their satin gloves, the mask dangled from one hand.

But Jen doesn’t get to her party in the superhero outfit because as she walks past an alleyway near the churchyard, she sees a woman being attacked by a man. Initially Jen shouts at him and phones the police but after he laughs at her and goes to punch the victim again, Jen attacks him and sits on him until the police arrive.

Oh God, for a few seconds I was a superhero. I was. The rush of it! A glut of chemicals slamming into my blood, a lightness in my belly, the unburdening of violence. It was a kind of frenzied passion and when it was over the world was different.

Jen runs before the police can see who she is, goes to the party in a completely different outfit and reveals to no one what she’s done. But the costume keeps calling to her; before long she’s out on the streets again and soon teenage girls in Martha’s school year are being attacked and Jen knows she has to do something about it.

Vigilante is a novel about women’s bodies – how they see themselves and how they’re seen by males; about marriage and the compromises and sacrifices you make; about finding yourself and being comfortable in your skin and fulfilled in your work/hobbies.

Harris looks closely at the expectations society places on women – young women in particular – and how these inform the way men think of women. She explores this through images of the body – the cartoon Elliot draws; graffiti on a shop wall of a young woman wearing the uniform from Martha’s school; the way Jen feels about her body and both the comments she endures when she’s wearing the costume and the comments made about her in the press and unknowingly by the people around her – but also through the roles that Jen and Elliot take in their marriage and the resentments they bear when one believes the other is getting to be the ‘goodie’ with their daughter while they take a more difficult role.

The plot’s gripping; the interweaving of several strands – the superhero, the attacks, Jen and Elliot’s marriage, Martha – maintain the narrative drive and make this a difficult novel to put down while Jen’s voice felt like a real, forty-something-year-old’s voice with believable concerns about her life.

Vigilante is a novel in which character, voice, plot and themes come together to create a cracking read. It’s a brilliant book. Highly recommended.

Thanks to W&N for the review copy.

What a Way to Go – Julia Forster + Q&A

It’s 1988. Twelve-year-old Harper Richardson’s parents are divorced and it seems as though she’s the one doing the fixing.

Us kids left behind in the wreckage of a broken home cope by creating two cut-out versions of ourselves: one for each parent. At Mum’s, I watch four hours of telly a day, read trashy novels and speak my mind. At Dad’s, I watch my Ps and Qs, digest facts and toe the line.

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At her dad’s house, which used to be the family home, Harper’s former friends have frozen her out. Now her only friend there is Mrs Curtis who’s ‘dead bitchy’. No one else speaks to Mrs Curtis after her son, Gregory, left for London, apparently got divorced and never visits.

Part of the time at her dad’s is spent at Lone Ranger events. It’s a group designed to support single-parent families.

…the kids are chucked together to ‘have fun’ while the adults get bitter about their exes. Once they’ve exhausted each other with tales of being back on the shelf, with raw deals and colossal mortgages, the kids are given the job of taking black bin liners around to collect the stale crisps and plastic cups which have been crushed in frustration by grown-ups and children alike.

There Harper’s dad finds a new girlfriend and Harper meets a boy who’ll change her view of the world in the way that relationships can in your early teens.

Harper also has her mum’s dates to deal with until Kit arrives and it seems as though everything might just work out.

The town Harper lives in with her mum is called Blackbrake, ‘famous for lager, lifts and loonies’. When she’s not sussing out potential stepdads, Harper and her friend, Cassie, trespass on the grounds of the private mental hospital, sneaking in to use the gym. Otherwise she’s setting up her own shop: Harper’s Bazaar or spending the holidays in the advertising agency where her mum works.

It’s not long, however, before questions begin to arise about Harper’s parents: why did they lie about where they met? Why’s there a period of time when Harper can’t recall her mum being around? And those around them: Why’s Kit in town kissing another woman? Why doesn’t Mrs Curtis’ son ever visit?

What begins as a humorous, pitch-perfect, coming-of-age story, turns into something with much darker undertones. Forster covers themes of divorce, being a single parent, mental health, death and sexuality. What she does well here is maintain the lightness of touch seen throughout the novel whilst giving these themes the gravity they need. The reader follows Harper in discovering that life is much more complex than it sometimes appears.

What a Way to Go is an entertaining look at some of life’s challenges with some brilliant 80s references scattered within. It’s perfect for fans of Nina Stibbe’s Man at the Helm.

Polaroid Image Blog Tour No. 1

I’m delighted to welcome Julia Forster to the blog to answer some questions about the novel.

You tackle some big issues in the book – mental health, death, divorce; did the story begin with the themes or did it come out of an idea for a character?

I knew three things when I began writing this novel: that it would be set in the late eighties, that it was the story about a twelve year-old girl whose parents had divorced and that it would be divided into two parts. Aside from that, I had no idea what would happen, how it would end nor how I would get there. I felt like a tourist parachuted into a foreign city for which I had no map and where I didn’t speak the language. The positive side of this was that I didn’t bring my own baggage into the narrative, and that I was light on my feet.

Harper was my diminutive tour guide, waggling her umbrella above her head, occasionally glancing over her shoulder to make sure I was keeping up with her. By the time I’d finished writing What a Way to Go, I felt entirely fluent in her language; when I wrote ‘The End’ I trusted that we’d found our final destination.

Some of the other characters’ complexities only revealed themselves to me as I was in the final throes of writing the book, so I then went back to amplify some of the earlier symbolism. I wanted little objects that appeared in the story to take on an extra significance, a bit like retrofitting a pistol on a mantelpiece after the gunshot has gone off.

Despite the big issues, the novel’s also very funny. Did you always intend the humour to be there and how do you balance the funny and the dark?

Thank you. No, I didn’t intend the humour to be there at all. It wasn’t a self-conscious act to make it funny, that was just how it came out. The humour took me by surprise; as my good friends and family will attest, I forget punch lines when I tell jokes. Not only that, I take things far too literally. I am epically gullible.

The balance between funny and dark, light and shade took a bit of work. In the first draft I would move too swiftly from tragic moments into comedy. When my agent (Sophie Lambert at Conville and Walsh) pointed this out, I then took a red pen to quite a few of those scenes.

In truth, I think that I found the emotional scenes difficult to write. Finding the funny side was a way of side-stepping the pain, like wrapping my characters in the cotton wool of humour. I learnt to resist this tendency, and to spotlight the emotion for just long enough without, I hope, it becoming mawkish.

As an 80s child, I loved all the references to the food and culture of the time. What sort of research did you do into the period?

Here are just a few of the things I had in my arsenal:

  • Now That’s What I Call Music! 11 CD on repeat. I eventually made my own Spotify soundtrack for the album, which you can listen to here 
  • Twenty pounds’ worth of penny sweets
  • A calendar for 1988 with each weekend marked up ‘Dad’ or ‘Mum’, depending on where Harper was staying (she spends alternate weekends with her parents)
  • An almanac of Smash Hits magazine
  • Old photographs from the mid to late eighties, such as this one of me as a gap-toothed Brownie, aged eight, in 1986

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  • Letters that I sent to my pen friend – remember pen friends? Mine lived, rather un-exotically, two miles away, on the other side of Northampton. We corresponded monthly over a ten-year period
  • A list of the number one hits from 1988
  • The brilliant No Such Things as Society: A History of Britain in the 1980 by Andy McSmith (Constable) was on my desk throughout
  • Youtubing too many vintage Kylie videos than I care to admit, as well as watching footage of musicians performing live, such as Tanita Tikaram, Queen and also key moments from Live Aid. Adverts from that era are also weirdly evocative, perhaps because I routinely spent five hours a day watching television as a child! The third one in this montage, advertising British Telecom’s work to improve telephone boxes in rural communities, is perhaps the most poignant in today’s era of mobile communications…

The voice of Harper is very convincing. Was it a challenge to write from a first-person twelve (and a half!) year-old’s point-of-view?

I worried that I would have lost my connection with that childish point of view as, when I began the book, I had two pre-school children in tow. My concern was that I would struggle to remember how the world looked through a twelve year-old’s perspective because my own children’s point of view might cloud it, or somehow super-impose my ability to see the world through a fictional child’s viewpoint.

I had written another full-length work, an autobiography about my childhood, when I was 24; I think this helped in that I had captured some of my own experiences from a younger perspective in that piece of work. I didn’t consult the autobiography at all while I was writing What a Way to Go, but I felt I had almost bottled that emotion in my mid-twenties. On some level, then, the perspective was still available for me to dip back into, a decade later when I came to write the novel.

There is a lovely quote by Mary Karr on ‘The Art of Memoir’ in the Paris Review series in which I think she gets what it’s like to be a kid spot on. I had this quote metaphorically pinned above my desk:

“Childhood was terrifying for me. A kid has no control. You’re three feet tall, flat broke, unemployed, and illiterate. Terror snaps you awake. You pay keen attention. People can just pick you up and move you and put you down…”

It was also a bonus for me that Harper seemed to have these diametrically opposed aspects to her personality: while she is mature for her age, she can also be quite naïve and while she is opinionated, she can also be self-delusional at times. Coupled with that she doesn’t take herself too seriously – that lifted a great load off my shoulders as an author. I felt like, with Harper, anything could happen.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?

 Very difficult question, but to name just a few:

Daphne du Maurier – Rebecca inspired me to write when I was young.

Amy Poehler – I loved Yes Please, despite not knowing who half the people she talks about are, having never watched an episode Saturday Night Live. It’s a testament to the writing that this didn’t matter one jot.

Siri Hustvedt – when I read non-fiction, it is often about psychology, and here is a novelist who combines great storytelling with characters who show real psychological depth.

Miriam Toews – I have followed her work ever since I read a manuscript of A Complicated Kindness as part of a job interview in a literary agency.

Diana Athill – I’ve read all her work except for her latest, Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter which is at the top of my TBR pile.

Blog Tour Poster FINAL

Thanks to Julia Forster for a great interview and Atlantic Books for the review copy. 

Talk of the Toun – Helen MacKinven + guest post/Q&A

I’m absolutely delighted to have Helen MacKinven on the blog today discussing her debut novel Talk of the Toun. In a slight variation to how I usually do these posts, Helen’s written a guest piece on her use of Scot’s dialect in the novel, which is up first. That’s followed by my review and then, because I love the book so much and there were so many things I wanted to ask about it, there’s a Q&A with Helen too. Enjoy!

When I read your excellent piece in Fiction Uncovered, on reading regional and cultural accents it expressed sentiments that are central to who I am as a writer and a key theme in my debut novel. I grew up in a council housing scheme and everyone I knew apart from the teachers at school, the doctor and the parish priest was working class. I was the first person in my immediate and very large extended family to get a degree. To be a writer wasn’t something that ever seemed like an option and I’d no role models to aspire to, writers weren’t real people, they belonged in the world of books. I enjoyed the escapism of following the adventures of the girls in Mallory Towers who had midnight feasts and toasted marshmallows as a parallel universe to playing chap door run and making my way home when the street lights came on. There were no characters that I could relate to in the books I read, they didn’t act like me or speak like me and it was a long time before I found the inspiration I was looking for to find my own writing ‘voice’.

Writers like Anne Donovan in her novel Buddha Da, gave a voice to characters I could understand and relate to and her use of dialect was a model for the style of writing I aspired to achieve, that of an authentic and credible voice.

It’s taken me ten years of writing to find my own ‘voice’ and realise that rather than copy formats that sell, I want to write about subjects and settings that aren’t necessarily commercial. I feel that this has made it harder for me to get published.

When I was looking for a publisher, this was the response; ironically the company is based in Edinburgh.

“The Scottish dialect in your novel flows effortlessly and was appreciated and understood by the Scottish members of the team. But readers unfamiliar with Scottish dialect found the novel too demanding and challenging.
We suggest that you submit your novel to a publisher more focused on publishing Scottish novels.”

I’ve taken the gamble of using Scots dialect in my writing which might be a barrier to some readers but not to the ones I want to reach. My novel is a coming-of-age story where the main character wants to go to art school but has to fight against the expectations of her circle of influence and find her own identity. I know how hard that can be, even although I lived in the same type of council house as my classmates because I was clever and wore glasses, laughably I was called posh!

When I started writing the first person narrative of my novel I immediately knew I had no choice but to write the dialogue in a local dialect to make it sound real and natural, anything else would be false. Of course my book will not appeal to every reader, and if one of the reasons is that there’s too much dialect, then my work here is done.

Angela and Lorraine have been friends since the first day of primary school. Lorraine’s been a teacher’s pet and a cry baby ever since. Now the girls are seventeen and Lorraine’s crying because the rector’s in school showing them an anti-abortion film.

There were only two weeks left to go before the school holidays and with the exams finished, it was obvious that the teachers were filling in time and were literally using murder to kill off any ideas that we had of a summer of sun, sea and sex. Most of us wouldn’t get as far as the beach at Burntisland wearing cagoules as it pissed down, but every one of us could get shagged if we put our mind to it. And I was determined that me and Lorraine wouldn’t be coming back for sixth year as virgins.

Beside this short-term ambition to lose her virginity, Angela’s got her sights set on Glasgow School of Art. Encouraged by one of her teachers, she’s hoping to get off the council scheme she’s grown up on and pursue a different path. Not if her parents have their way though, they – her dad in particular – are intent on her getting a job straight from school, just as they did.

It was getting harder and harder to speak to them. My mam and dad talked at me, not to me. I’d outgrown them when I was about twelve and we’d lived on different planets ever since.

But Angela has her gran, the pet psychic, Senga Shepherd, to turn to. She dog sits Bimbo, the white poodle, for Senga when she goes to the bingo and also nips to her gran’s for lunch on Saturdays. Senga’s got plenty of wise words and advice as well as knowing the local gossip.

Lorraine’s family’s quite different. Her thirteen-year-old sister Janine is disabled – in a wheelchair and reliant on others for her care. Her mum, Rita, is a devout Catholic – or at least she is now, Angela’s mum and gran have plenty to say about what Rita got up to before she had Lorraine – and they live on a Wimpey estate nicknamed Spam Valley by the locals from the scheme:

…where the weans got a row from their mammies if they used slang words that they learnt in the playground at school.

But the catalyst in the novel for the problems in Lorraine and Angela’s friendship comes from two people who Lorraine becomes close to: Pamela, a girl from school who Angela refers to as ‘Little Miss Brown Nose’ and Stevie Duffy, just out of borstal and ‘…a total ride. Ah’d sook him tae the root’, who both of them fancy.

The novel follows the girls’ friendship over the summer as they try to shed their virginity and Angela aims for art school.

MacKinven covers a number of big themes: sex – women’s sexuality particularly, class, religion, family relationships, friendship. They’re seamlessly integrated into a very tight plot.

What really impressed me about Talk of the Toun though was how it’s grounded in its time and place. The use of Scottish accent and dialect is perfectly pitched. I disagree with MacKinven’s earlier point here that the language she’s chosen to use might be a barrier. There’s the odd dialect word that readers might not know but they’re not difficult to discern in the contexts in which they’re used and if someone really needs to check them, the internet has the answers!

The other way in which the setting is well realised is through the use of 1980’s references. These take two forms: the first is the myriad mentions of cultural things from the time – Rubik’s cube, Rimmel’s Heather Shimmer lipstick, Cagney and Lacey, Kerplunk, Care Bears and so on. The second is more complex and a brave move on MacKinven’s part – references to attitudes of the time in relation to race and women’s sexuality. This leads to some passages in the novel that are very difficult to read in 2015. I cringed through them, not only because they’re so far from anything most people would dare to say these days but also because I know they were attitudes members of my own family held and vocabulary that they would use. Although it makes for uncomfortable reading, it allows MacKinven to do something really interesting with the end of the novel that’s completely in keeping with the time. It should lead to some interesting discussions and I’m glad she was brave enough to do it and not stray into a more modern response.

Talk of the Toun is one of the best novels I’ve read this year. I heartily recommend it and hope novels like this one keep chipping away at the idea that novels have to be written in Standard English to succeed.

Talk of the Toun is set in the 1980s and there’s some great references – Betamax videos, Take the High Road, Care Bears, Heather Shimmer Rimmel lipstick to name a few – that really help to ground it in this time. However, there are also some comments by characters that are very difficult to read in 2015 – Lorraine’s disabled sister is ‘handicapped’ ‘a Windae Licker’ and takes the ‘Nut Bus’ while there are a number of racist names used (along with protests from some characters that they’re not racist when Angela challenges them). Was it important to you to convey the social attitudes of the 1980s as well as the fashion and culture?

Absolutely! Initially I was uncomfortable even writing words and phrases that these days are socially unacceptable and I worried about reading passages aloud and the impact on the audience. My concerns as the writer were that the offensive terms could be interpreted as my own thoughts, rather than those of the characters and it was tempting to whitewash the manuscript. I had to reflect on whether or not I wanted the novel to be an accurate depiction of the ‘norm’ for the era or simply an easy read. I took the decision, along with using vernacular in the dialogue, that my aim was to create a credible sense of time and place and therefore I had to include the language and attitudes of the 80s. I hope that this will provoke discussion on how much things have changed, or not, in Scotland now.

There’s a lot in the novel about attitudes to women regarding sex and pregnancy that for me still felt very relevant to conversations happening now, were you thinking about parallels whilst you were writing the book?

Again, it was a case of trying to write a realistic situation and use my own memories of the attitudes to sex and pregnancy when I was a teenager in the 80s. Like the main characters, I was brought up as a Catholic and was indoctrinated at school and within the home that to become pregnant, unmarried, would bring shame on the family and scupper any thoughts of further education or a career. The first chapter in the novel has a scene where the senior pupils are shown a graphic anti-abortion film and this was based on my own experience at school. Being force-fed these messages meant that sex was equated with fear amongst me and my friends, your worst nightmare was to fall pregnant. I feel that attitudes like those highlighted in the novel are realistic in certain communities at that time and made an impact on how young women grew up to view their bodies and their sexuality. However, although times have changed, I wonder how many other young women are still on the receiving end of negative images and concepts?

Although most of the voices in the novel are working class ones you avoid stereotyping, particularly through Angela and her desire to go to Glasgow School of Art. Was it part of your aim to show a range of views and experiences?

My dad was one of fourteen children so I had many cousins (too many to count!) and yet I was the first in my extended family to go on to further education and achieve a degree in Primary Education. Growing up, the only middle-class folk I encountered were teachers at school, the doctor and the priest. My family’s mentality was that “sticking in” at school was the way to get on in life and I was encouraged to work hard and aim high. My personal experience doesn’t reflect Angela’s but it was easy to see how some of my contemporaries could feel held back by their social class. Angela is encouraged by her art teacher to use her talent to explore a world beyond her small town life and I wanted to show that a postcode doesn’t dictate your dreams.

The novel deals with a number of serious issues but it’s also very funny. Was the humour there from the first draft or was it something you added during the editing process?

Some years ago, I attended an Arvon residential course and as part of the one-to-one feedback from the tutor she remarked that it was interesting to critique a piece of black comedy. It took me a minute or two to realise that she was referring to my work as I’d never given my writing that label. But the more I wrote, the more I realised that my natural ‘voice’ enjoys using humour and so I consciously built in the light to offset the dark. The many drafts that ended up as Talk of the Toun always had humour running throughout the manuscript and I couldn’t imagine it in any other form.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?

I have quite a list but in relation to inspiration for Talk of the Toun I would say that Buddha Da by Anne Donovan would come close to the top as it features working class characters and uses rich Scottish dialect. I love to read Scottish contemporary fiction and also admire the work of writers such as Janice Galloway, Jackie Kay, Kerry Hudson and Karen Campbell. As you might guess, I like to do my bit to champion women who showcase quality Scottish fiction!

A huge thank you to Helen MacKinven for a fantastic guest post and Q&A and also to Thunderpoint Publishing for the review copy.