In the Media: October 2016, Part One

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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The fortnight began with the outing of Elena Ferrante. I’m not going to link to the original article, but there’s been a huge reaction to it:

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Photograph by Kate Neil

The other big story of the fortnight has been the release of the film version of The Girl on the Train.

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And the writer with the most coverage is Brit Bennett who’s interviewed on The Cut, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Jezebel, The New York Times and Literary Hub.

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

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The interviews/profiles:

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The regular columnists:

Reader, I Married Him, edited by Tracy Chevalier – Guest Post

I’m delighted to welcome Cassie Browne, Editorial Director of The Borough Press, to the blog to talk about the Jane Eyre inspired collection Reader, I Married Him.

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Last week The Borough Press published the short story collection Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre. The idea for the book came from Tracy Chevalier, who, in her work curating a series of events and exhibitions with The Bronte Parsonage in the year of Charlotte Brontë’s bicentenary, struck on the idea of commissioning stories by women writers inspired by one of the (or perhaps the) most famous lines in fiction. Out of this idea came this treasure chest of a collection.

Some of the stories take literal direction from Jane Eyre’s, using the voice of Jane herself and even Mr Rochester’s, while others loosely take themes from the novel and run far and away from its nineteenth-century moors setting. Tessa Hadley’s ‘My Mother’s Wedding’ opens at a bohemian wedding party which then takes an unexpected turn for the bride and her daughter; Elizabeth McCracken’s portrays a family trip to a Texan waterpark, which prompts a life-changing decision. Grace Poole defends Bertha Mason and calls the general opinion of Jane Eyre into question in Helen Dunmore’s ‘Grace Poole Her Testimony’, and in Salley Vickers’ ‘Reader, She Married Me’ Mr Rochester reveals a long-kept secret. Francine Prose boldly imagines Jane’s married life after the novel ends in ‘The Mirror’ and in Sarah Hall’s ‘Luxury Hour’, a new mother encounters an old lover after her daily swim and inexplicably lies to him. Kirsty Gunn’s ‘Dangerous Dog’ depicts a fitness instructor who teaches teenage boys how to handle a pit bull terrier by telling them Jane Eyre’s story.

The stories are brilliantly varied but, as Tracy Chevalier says in her Foreword, ‘Always, always in these stories there is love – whether it is the first spark or the last dying embers – in its many heartbreaking, life-affirming forms.’

This is such a wonderfully strong collection, which showcases some of the best women writers working today. Read it in order, read it backwards, or dip in at random. In whatever way you decide to start, I promise that you will be rewarded with twenty-one literary gems, which speak to so many contemporary themes, and remind us how very modern Charlotte Brontë – and her Jane – were for their time. As Chevalier says in her Foreword, ‘Charlotte was one of a trio of sisters who grew up in a parsonage in a remote Yorkshire village on the edge of the moors, who all published novels around the same time, with strong characters and storylines, before dying young. If you visit the atmospheric Brontë Parsonage in Haworth, where I first had the idea to create this collection of stories, you will be struck by what a strange, intense family the Brontës were: a hothouse of creativity springing from unpromising surroundings. Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë often sat together in the severe dining room, all writing and talking about what they wrote. Women just didn’t do that back in the nineteenth century.’ The fact that Charlotte Bronte – and Jane Eyre – have inspired such a brilliant group of writers to write these stories is surely testament to how important they both continue to be.

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I have Reader, I Married Him on my post-Bailey’s Prize reading pile. I’ve been fascinated by the Brontës since studying Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights for my A Levels so I’m very much looking forward to seeing what some of my favourite writers have done with the concept. In the meantime, there have been a number of blogposts about the collection in the last week if you’re keen for more information.

Huge thanks to Cassie Browne for the guest post.

 

In the Media: March 2016, Part Two

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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8th March 2016: The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction announces its 2016 longlist, comprised of 20 books that celebrate the best of fiction written by women

The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist was announced this fortnight. While former winner, Lionel Shriver declared ‘Women’s literary prizes are ‘problematic’‘.

And the Wellcome Book Prize announced their shortlist with four (out of six) female writers on it, as did the YA Book Prize with eight women writers on its ten book shortlist.

Elena Ferrante is hot news in the literary world once again after Corriere della Sera published an article in which Marco Santagata claimed to know her identity. Rachel Donadio wrote, ‘Who Is Elena Ferrante? An Educated Guess Causes a Stir‘ in The New York Times; Jonathan Sturgeon said, ‘We Already Know the Identity of Elena Ferrante‘ on Flavorwire; Lincoln Michel asked, ‘Why Do We Care Who the “Real” Elena Ferrante Is?‘ on Electric Literature; Stassa Edwards asked, ‘What’s Really Behind Our Obsession Over Unmasking Elena Ferrante?‘ on Jezebel; John Dugdale wrote, ‘Will Elena Ferrante outlast Louisa May Alcott’s secret alter ego?‘ in The Guardian, and Jessica Roy declared, ‘Leave Elena Ferrante Alone‘ in The Cut.

Anita Brookner died. Rebecca Hawkes wrote her obituary while Linda Grant wrote, ‘Why Anita Brookner’s funny, sharp novels got under your skin‘ both in The Telegraph.

The best of the rest:

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On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

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Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews:

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The regular columnists:

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.

 

In the Media, March 2016, part one

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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It’s Mothers’ Day in the UK today, so inevitably there’s been lots of writing about mothers – being one, having one, not having one – this week. Contributors including Jackie Kay, Jeanette Winterson and Helen Simpson wrote about ‘… my mother before I knew her‘ inspired by Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘Before You Were Mine’ in The Guardian; Liz Dashwood asks, ‘What do I *really* want for Mother’s Day?‘ on The Pool; Rivka Galchen talked about ‘The Only Thing I Envy Men‘ in The New Yorker; Robyn Wilder wrote, ‘Maternity leave: the reality versus the expectations‘, Emily Eades wrote, ‘Becoming a mother without your own mother to rely on‘ and Sinéad Gleeson wrote, ‘Mothers, and the pram-in-the-hall problem‘ all on The Pool (Do follow the link to the Anne Enright clip on that last piece. Spot on and very funny); Susan Briante wrote, ‘Mother Is Marxist‘ on Guernica; Kate Townshend asked, ‘Is it possible for a mother and daughter to be *too* close?‘, Samira Shackle said, ‘Returning to my mother’s homeland helped me to make sense of my place in the world‘, Cathy Rentzenbrink said, ‘There is no such thing as a smug mother, we’re all terrified and struggling‘ and Rosalind Powell wrote, ‘I didn’t give birth, but I became a mother‘ all on The Pool; Sarah Turner wrote, ‘Mother’s Day Without Mum‘ on The Unmumsy Mum

Louise Rennison

Sadly, Louise Rennison died this week. Philip Ardagh wrote, ‘My Hero: Louise Rennison‘ in The Guardian. Shannon Maughan wrote her obituary for Publishers Weekly.

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The woman with the most coverage this fortnight is Sanjida Kay with ‘Where’s the Diversity in Grip-Lit?‘ on The Asian Writer; ‘on Switching Genres‘ on The Literary Sofa, and ‘Fairytales‘ on Women Writers, Women’s Books

Exciting news as forthcoming novels from Jilly Cooper, Zadie Smith and Ali Smith were announced this fortnight.

And I’ve added Kaushana Cauley’s new Intersections column for Catapult to the regulars list at the bottom of the links. It’s well worth a read.

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

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Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews:

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The regular columnists:

In the Media: February 2016, Part One

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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This fortnight, Frances Hardinge became the first children’s author to win the Costa Book of the Year Award since Philip Pullman in 2001. Hardinge’s interviewed in The Guardian. Aria Akbar in The Independent used Hardinge’s win to remind us that adults can and do read children’s books too, ‘Here’s hoping this ‘moment’ for children’s fiction leads to a golden age‘ while Caroline O’Donoghue asked, ‘Why is it so easy to fall in love with children’s books?‘ on The Pool.

The other bookish talking point has been around those titles Marion Keyes named ‘Grip-Lit’ i.e. so gripping you don’t want to stop turning the pages. Alexandra Heminsley writes, ‘Grip-lit, and how the women in crime fiction got interesting‘ on The Pool, while Sophie Hannah says, ‘Grip-lit? Psychological thrillers were around long before Gone Girl‘ in The Guardian.

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

Film, Television, Music, Art and Fashion:

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The interviews:

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The regular columnists:

The Last Runaway – Tracy Chevalier

So far this year, only three novels have kept me up past bedtime, rapidly turning pages. The first was The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes; the second, Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doherty, and the third was The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier.

The Last Runaway is the story of Honor Bright, a young, English Quaker. Honor sets out to sail from Bridport to America with her sister, Grace. Grace is engaged to be married to Adam, an older man who left England to help his family with the ‘dry goods’ store they’d established in Ohio. Honor is leaving England having been jilted by another Quaker who is now marrying outside of the religion.

The crossing is difficult for Honor:

She threw up when there was nothing left to bring up, her body like a magician managing to conjure something from nothing. She did not feel better after each bout. When they reached the Atlantic and the ship began its long roll up and down the swell of the waves, she continued to be sick. Only now Grace was ill too, as well as many other passengers, though only for a time, until they got used to the new rhythm of the boat. Honor never got used to it; the nausea did not leave her for the whole month-long voyage.

Within days of their arrival though it is Grace who falls ill. She contracts yellow fever and dies. Honor feels she can do nothing else but continue to their final destination and become part of the Quaker settlement in Freemont.

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Of course, it’s not going to be that simple. On the road to Wellington, the wagon Honor is riding on is pulled over by a man named Donovan. Donovan’s a slave catcher and a real charmer:

‘You from England?’ the man said
        Honor nodded’
       ‘Say something, then. I always liked the accent.’
       When Honor hesitated, the man said, ‘Go on, say something. What, you too proud to talk to me? Say “How do you do, Donovan.”’
        Rather than remain silent and risk his insistence turning to anger, Honor looked into his amused eyes and said, ‘How does thee, Mr Donovan?’
        Donovan snorted. ‘How does I? I does just fine, thankee. Nobody’s called me Mr Donovan in years. You Quakers make me laugh. ‘What’s your name, girl?’
        ‘Honor Bright.’
        ‘You gonna live up to your name, Honor Bright?’

When Honor arrives in Wellington, she stays with Belle Mills for a few days. While she’s there, she realises that Belle is hiding runaway slaves. As Quakers believe that everyone is equal, it’s not long before Honor has her own part to play.

The Last Runaway looks at both the ‘Underground Railroad’, a network of people who helped runaway slaves, and the Quakers and their lifestyle. Chevalier is particularly interested in the way Quakers worship in silence and this becomes a key theme in the book.

What I enjoyed most about the book was Honor’s progression from a quite sheltered, naïve young woman to one who was certain about the direction she wanted her life to take. I loved the two female characters who supported her too – Belle Mills and Mrs Reed, a free black woman. I highly recommend it.

And if I’m not enough to convince you, maybe Tracy Chevalier herself is; here’s an essay she wrote about her interest in silence and how it became a key theme in the novel.

On Silence
by Tracy Chevalier

One day several summers ago I was on the street in mid-Manhattan, trying to make a phone call. All around me people were chatting on their mobiles, insouciant, while I couldn’t hear a damned thing. I know that some of the upper register of my hearing has started to go (age, poor Q-tip use, a particularly loud Echo and the Bunnymen concert), but it was more than that. I began to listen. My God, it was noisy. The cars, the people, the planes. When did it start getting so loud? The more I heard, the more astonished I was that people weren’t covering their ears and complaining.

That moment was the beginning of my interest in the value of silence. My immediate response was a writerly one: I read books on the subject, most notably Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence, and Listening Below the Noise: A Meditation on the Practice of Silence by Anne LeClaire. LeClaire took the extreme step of choosing not to speak every Monday, a strategy that brought her inner peace but external strife, as her decision offended family and friends who found her silence to be a judgement on their words. It turns out silence is a powerful tool that can scare people. Think of the two-minute silence on Remembrance Day, or the minute’s silence at a football game as a mark of respect for someone who has died. There is always some idiot who can’t cope with the power that arises from the collective silence, and shouts or whistles to break it.

My craving for silence on that New York street led me back to Quaker Meeting, possibly the quietest place in today’s society outside of a meditation class. When I was growing up in Washington, DC, my sister and brother and I went to Catoctin Quaker Camp every summer for seven years. There, apart from the usual camp things like hiking and swimming and roasting marshmallows, every morning we sat in silence for 15 minutes out in the woods. I loved it; it felt companionable being quiet with other people.

It’s remarkable to think of a group of children sitting silent, but it seemed natural then. Indeed, I occasionally attend Hampstead Meeting, where children come in for the last 10 minutes of the hour-long gathering, and have seen babies and toddlers remain quiet and calm for that time.

Since their establishment in the mid-17th century, Quakers – or the Society of Friends, as they are formally known – have worshipped in collective silence, without the intervention of priest or minister, listening in the stillness for something non-verbal and timeless tucked deep inside. Some call it God, or the Spirit, or the Inner Light, or something less overtly religious. By stripping away noise, it is easier to let go of the everyday, settle one’s thoughts, and listen. Quaker Meeting is much like meditation, except done together rather than alone. The communal nature of the experience is essential, for being with others makes the silence more valuable. Sometimes at Meeting when I’m restless, I sense the stillness of those around me and it reminds me of what I’m doing, so that I sit still and try again.

I had been to Meeting only a handful of times since my teenage years, but once I began craving silence, I started to go a little more often. And it was at a Quaker Meeting in Bethesda, Maryland in 2009 that I had the idea for my current novel, The Last Runaway.

A few days before, I had been visiting Oberlin College in Ohio, where I had done a BA in English many years before, and watched the novelist Toni Morrison unveil a bench as part of her Bench by the Road project. The Nobel Laureate had previously remarked that there were no monuments to slavery in America, “not even a bench by the road.” The challenge was taken up, and now commemorative benches are being set at places of historical significance to African Americans.

Oberlin has its Bench by the Road because, from its founding in 1834, it has been a radical place, both town and college. The college admitted women and African Americans as students from the start – the first US college to do so. And the town was a major stop on the “Underground Railroad” – a network of abolitionists who hid slaves in safe houses and helped them escape to freedom in Canada.

As I sat in Bethesda Meeting, my Oberlin visit got me thinking about how active Quakers were in the abolitionist movement to get rid of slavery in the US, and how many of them worked on the Underground Railroad. Then it occurred to me that I could write about a Quaker doing just that. Moreover, my heroine would value silence, not just in Meeting, but at all times. She would be an antidote to this noisy age.

When writing the first draft of The Last Runaway, I tried to have Honor Bright be as quiet as possible. Every time she was required to speak, I made her replies short, and cut them out whenever I could. However, it became clear just how hard it is to keep characters quiet – and honest. (Quakers are not meant to lie, but if you get rid of lies and omissions in novels, you have no drama.) Besides, few Quakers don’t speak at all – though I have noticed that, in general, the Quakers I know are more thoughtful in their speech, pausing to consider their responses more than others do. Eventually I allowed Honor to open her mouth more (and to lie when she must), but she is still pretty quiet.

I found too that it is not easy to describe silence. By its nature it is a non- verbal state. When I sit in Meeting, I am constantly chasing away thoughts, which are made up of words. Ideally, when I manage to hold thoughts at bay, I enter into a state that I cannot describe. The moment words come back into it, the state vanishes.

This is true as well when writing about silence. It is so difficult to express that I grab at metaphors, or phrases Quakers have developed over the centuries to explain what they are seeking: the silence “gathering and thickening”, members of the Meeting “sinking down”, “waiting in expectation” for the “Inner Light” or the “Inner Spirit”. I have Honor Bright say all of these things, but I’m not sure I have really got it.

The best I can hope is that my imprecise attempt to describe silence will pique readers’ curiosity into seeking it out for themselves. It is worth quieting the mind for. 

If all that’s whetted your appetite, here’s an extract from the novel. Honor has arrived in America and travelled towards the home of her would-be brother-in-law. She spends a few days with Belle in her milliner’s shop, a character and place that becomes important to Honor.

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Thanks to Harper Collins for the review copy and additional material.