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On Reading Sylvia Plath

Today, Brain Pickings reminded me it was the death-a-versary of one of my favourite writers.  I’ve been thinking about Sylvia Plath a lot.  In a workshop last week, I played a recording of her reading “Daddy”.  It landed in the room like something foul, something rotten.  Faces were made, awkward shiftings in fold-down chairs in the lecture hall.  Not a one of the students liked it and I wondered why.  Perhaps there is something about her voice, arch and brittle, distinctly New England, that put them off?  Maybe they’d already had too much of her at A-level or maybe, I thought with horror, they couldn’t relate her anymore, that time had eroded her power or interest, that she was dated, passe’, irrelevant.  Could it be so – for them?
Sylvia Plath died before I was born and I cannot get enough of her.  We all have triggers, things that will make us pick up a book faster than seems humanly possible.  I tell myself I know everything there is to know about Sylvia Plath –  poetess and cuckold, doomed wife and mother, misunderstood teen-woman with her oven and her milk and cookies and her tragic rolls of tape – but she is my trigger.  Any reference to her on a jacket, in a blurb, and the book is at the till with my debit card out faster than you can say Lady Lazarus – but why?  Why does she have such a hold on me, still?
5971_groundbreaking_plath Ariel set me on the road to feminism.  A budding playwright, I was a Ted-hater way back, in emotional solidarity with those who repeatedly scratched the Hughes from her tombstone.  I have long since repented of this vandalism; I do adore Ted Hughes, though not nearly with the passion I reserve for Sylvia.  On a recent residency at Yaddo, whose bedroom did I need to see first?  Whose books did I search for at the library?  Reader, it was I.  At Yaddo, Plath wrote poems for The Colossos, for Ariel was still many dark winters ahead of her, and spent eleven weeks working alongside Hughes in what seems to be a happy time for both of them; she writes often of their stay in Letters Home, the collection of her correspondence from 1950 – 1963.  The knowledge that she had stood in the library, running her fingers along the spines, was thrilling.  Reading my work aloud in the room where I knew she had nearly undid me.
51piextgssl-_sx322_bo1204203200_Many come to Sylvia through The Bell Jar, which seems to have become a YA book since I was a young adult.  Were I one now, I might have found my way to Plath through Meg Wolitzer’s Belzhar, where traumatised teens in a New England boarding school find peace and connection though Special Topics in English and a journal they must fill.  Of course, the journal affords them magical adventures of memory, time travel, and redemption, and I loved it.  There isn’t a huge amount of Plath in this Belzhar, but I think she’s there in that teenage passion, the wounds that cut and refuse to heal, memories that feel as if the world has ended, before we outgrow such wonderfully painful things.
Recently, I found a young Sylvia in Pain, Parties, WorkSylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953.  Elizabeth Winder painstakingly reconstructs four weeks in Plath’s life as a guest editor for the Mademoiselle magazine’s annual college issue, inspecting and illuminating events from her point of view, through her journals and letters, as well as interviewing fellow guest editors, some of whom would end up, often only slightly rewritten, in The Bell Jar.  There are wonderful photographs, sidebars on period culture and fashion, and kernels of the work to come, as well as a thorough examination of what seems to have been expected of women at the time and how Plath was already balking.
sylvia-plath-en-yorkshireOf course, there are a kabillion biographies of Sylvia Plath, and they’re all good, in their various ways, combing over the wealth of materials and journals and diaries that she produced.  Leaving those to one side, I admire works that are inspired by her, that strive to feel like her.  Kate Moses’ Wintering is a “novel of Sylvia Plath”, set during the last few  months of her life.  Chapters are arranged in the order of the Ariel poems as Plath intended, not in the order of the collection as Hughes saw fit to publish after her death.  You probably do have to be a hardcore Plath-fan to love Wintering, but there is much to admire.  It isn’t easy.  The terrain and the language are rich, dense, and evocative.  Here and there, Moses does slip under the poet’s skin, right where we want to be.
Often, Sylvia is only a ghost and no more so than in Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters, published just months prior to his death.  A collection of poems that he seems to have written over his long life, they show how he was haunted by her actions and his own.  They show him trying to pin her down, to understand what happened and how he was, and was not, responsible.  They are love letters and question marks, elegies to who she was and who he was.  In last week’s workshop, I also shared a few poem by Ted Hughes – Pike and The Thought Fox – and told them the story of their marriage and its demise, and I thought again, as the students finally sat up with interest, how dogged the two were, and always will be, by the drama of their lives.
41qhedtwial-_sx322_bo1204203200_A recent addition to the Hughes/Plath canon is the novella/essay/fable/miracle by editor and writer Max Porter, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, wherein a black crow comes to rescue a man unhinged by the death of his wife and his two motherless boys.  Crow, Hughes’ talisman, is billed as “antagonist, trickster, healer, babysitter”.  He arrives at the door like a dark-winged Mary Poppins and says he will stay until they don’t need him anymore.  Throughout the book, Crow teases, soothes, and torments them, inserts himself into poetry and history, and helps them remember how it feels to live.  Reading it, having recently lost my own mother, I sobbed like a kitten.  I can hardly bear to open the book now, but it went straight onto the shelf of favourite books in the Blue House and sits there now beside Mary Oliver and Louise Erdrich and my battered copy of Ariel, all flanking a faded, curling picture of me as a child, head bent, examining my thumb with pain and wonder – a first splinter or graze, I think, the moment where I seem to understanding something about the world and deciding whether or not I will cry.  There is something about pain and wonder in all of these books.  Is it any wonder I keep going back to them, sharing them with students, and holding them so close?



Happy February.  For the whole of January I barely wrote.  No blog posts, no rewriting.  Not a single morning page. This, in particular, felt odd for me. If you follow this blog, you’ll know I am a great fan of morning pages, Dorothea Brande’s suggestion that writers seek to work in a way that is uncensored, barely conscious – to begin the writing before the critic in our brain is awake. It’s why I am a morning writer and why I reach for of a morning, before almost anything (this does not include tea, I hasten to add).  But with the turning of a new year, I’d lost my mojo. I couldn’t find it anywhere.  I felt my words had all dried up. I felt stuck in the past of what had been, frankly, a year of misery, and anxious to turn the calendar page and start again. But how?
moby-dick-first-edition-cover-xlargeMy old ways weren’t working.  There was no comfort to be found in writing – or reading. I didn’t know how to find the resilence to begin again – again – nor any idea of how to quit. Salvation came in an email from The Pigeonhole. Could I read Moby-Dick for the month of January, one Stave at a time? (Why this email? Why then? Why anything that calls to a ragged heart and bids it answer?) I had never been particularly interested in the idea of reading Moby-Dick. I’m more a Hawthorne girl: among the Concord clan, I thought Melville had little enough to say to me, a pagan vegetarian from the West. What could he teach me of life when he only solely interested in men, harpoons, and sperm? (Spoiler: there’s rather a lot of sperm in Moby-Dick:  sperm oil, spermaceti, a good dollop of testosterone, and buckets of blood.)  But I was desperate.  I thought I’d dip my toe in the water and see how it felt.
Day 1, the Stave was rather dull. A preface, but easily enough digested with a bit of a day-after-night-champagne head. Day 2, with the introduction of “Call Me Ishmael” and his shameless love for the dashing cannibal, Queequeg, I was well and truly hooked.
Day by day, I succumbed to the pleasure of Melville’s language – a true delight. I could feel myself filling up with vocabulary – arcane, Nantucketian, whale-centric.  Somehow, I thrilled to their chases and dazzling escapes – because, of course, it is wonderful writing.  Playful, inventive, surprising – but also filled with great affection.  Having fallen head-over-heels for Queequeg, my heart made room for Daggoo and Tashtego, the laugh-out-loud Stubb and Flask, the noble Starbuck. I found myself caring every bit as much for troubled Ahab as I did his great white whale. It is a rare thing (for me, now) to want a book to never end.  (As a child, I wanted every book to be endless, and only recently have I felt this when reading The Crimson Petal and the White or Wolf Hall.) Nearing the end of Moby-Dick, I kept hoping Melville might continue to add chapters from the grave, so that his journey could go on and on. I would have kept on reading.
Laura_Schwamman_MobyDickIt didn’t, of course. It ended last night in its own watery grave, as did the month of January, a horrible month for so much of the world. One twelfth of a new year, done and drowned. But somehow, in the last week of January, I found myself able to return to a project that broke my heart. I know it will continue to break my heart a few more times before it’s done with me, but somehow, with the passing of time and the lifeblood of a leviathan, I feel able to get back on my boat, board my craft and try to sail it. (Too many metaphors? Too many parentheses? Blame Melville. And I wouldn’t be surprised if he pops up again for me, down the road, in another project that lies ahead, if I can get on the other side of the books I must write first. There is a quite a queue building.)  “For the third time my soul’s ship starts upon this voyage, Starbuck.” If Captain Ahab can give his whale three chases, I reckon I have another draft in me.
mobyfinalblueAfter all, this isn’t a battle of life and death. I have no boatload of whalers to defend. I have only this great white whale of a story, trying to run away from me, and the harpoon of my desire to catch it. If it doesn’t end well for Ahab – or the whale – I won’t dwell on that. In my mind, there is another life for the crew of the Pequod, Melville’s unwritten sequel. Of course, they escape defeat. Of course, they surface, once Ishmael has sailed away in his loneliness. Of course, Queequeg swims to a new island, bearing Stubb upon his back. Of course, Daggoo and Tashtego build the dug-out canoe that will take them all back to New England, where Ishmael awaits with a bowl of chowder. And Ahab? Of course, he will spend eternity circling his prize, which is as it should be, after all.

Essie Fox & The Last Days of Leda Grey

leda-greyI don’t often do author interviews on my blog, but here is a wonderful exception!  One of the best parts of being a writer is the opportunity to make friends with other writers whose work you love.  In honour of her upcoming appearance at Canterbury Christ Church, as part of the Writing Comes Alive series – please welcome, Essie Fox.
Essie Fox is the author of three gothic Victorian novels – The Somnambulist, Elijah’s Mermaid, and The Goddess and the Thief – rich, sensual, and dark tales of spiritualism, obsession, and madness.  With her fourth novel, The Last Days of Leda Grey, Essie Fox turns to the haunting world of silent cinema, a bewitching novel about an enigmatic film actress and the volatile love affair that left her a recluse for over half a century, in a story that spans the birth of British film to the long hot summer of 1976.  The Times describes the novel as  “luminous … with a sensuousness to the prose … Leda Grey’s world is utterly beguiling,” and recently selected The Last Days of Leda Grey as the newspaper’s October Book of the Month.
Want to know more?  Here’s a fantastically gothic book trailer for The Last Days of Leda Grey:  

Hi Essie!  I’m always intrigued to learn how a book begins.  What was the very first spark for you?   There were two separate sparks for this novel. The first was when I viewed a film that had been restored and digitized by the National Film Archives – Panoramic View of Morecambe Seafront: 1901. This film of everyday people taking their holiday promenade has such an astonishing clarity, and I felt myself drawn back in time – straight into that Edwardian Seaside town.  Please do view the film if you have a chance. If you do then I think you will understand how it was that I came to be entranced, even if I set my story in Brighton rather than Morecambe. It’s also quite a sobering thought that the joyful little boys we see running along as the camera moves, waving their hats and handerkerchiefs, would have been of an age to then grow up to fight in the trenches of WW1.
screen-shot-2016-11-30-at-13-22-03The second spark, really more of a jolt of electricity, was a poster I saw in a window front in a junk shop in the Brighton Lanes. This image of Theda Bara – a goddess and vamp of the silent screen – went on to inspire the seductive dark looks of my novel’s main character, Leda Grey: a young girl who grows up while dreaming of becoming a star of the silent screen.

The Last Days of Leda Grey seems a real love letter to cinema, though one tinged with grief, loss, tragedy.  What was it about cinema and its history that you hoped to capture? What did you know before you began – and what did you learn that pulled you in new directions?  I’ve always enjoyed a good old-fashioned film noir – especially the dramatic weepies in which Bette Davies starred which I often to used to watch with my mum, cuddled up on the sofa on wet weekends – and which, I’m very happy to say, I managed to reference in my book … just as I did some other films that have influenced me through the years.
5bf925b25a72e706c3f38deff64c8b07But, when writing my Victorian novels I also became very interested in the development of photography, and how that then led to moving film – the medium which has since gone on to have an enormous influence on so many aspects of our modern world. And yet, we know so little about the pioneers of early British film – and as Ed, who is a journalist who becomes obsessed with Leda Grey, says when he first hears of them: ‘Why don’t we know of this … I’d always assumed the silent films first started in America.’  Of course, Ed is speaking for me here. I’d imagined the Hollywood silents were all made in the 1920s, whereas the earliest moving films were Victorian and Edwardian – and they were made in England, in Europe, and other countries too – as well as in America.
On the whole these films were very short, lasting just a few minutes or more, which was due to the technical restraints of loading and editing the film. As well as dramatic features, there were lots of documentaries – the films called ‘actuals’ at the time, very much like Morecambe Seafront. The people filmed in these ‘actuals’ would then be given the chance to go and view themselves in theatres, or church halls, or even high street shops – anywhere that itinerant film makers could hire for setting up their screens, and then to charge admission fees when the general public flocked inside to view themselves with wonder – to see themselves flickering like ghosts – just as we can see them now. But now, those people all are dead.  I find that incredibly poignant.
georgemelies10-bigA great many early film makers were involved in the photographic trade, or had had theatrical careers. Magicians like George Melies grasped this exciting new medium to expand the tricks performed on stage. And what wonders were achieved on film – with double exposures or split screens allowing the most surprising effects. I found it quite fascinating myself, to exploit so many of these themes when imagining all the old noir ‘films’ that I write about in Leda Grey – films with which have the illusions of ghosts, or men who’ve had their heads chopped off which they then juggle round like balls. And, whether directors made comedies, or stories with eerier atmospheres, the early effects that they devised are often still employed in today. Cruder, yes. Of course they are. The technology has come so far. But, still, remarkable to see.

The Last Days of Leda Grey is particularly interested in time – years and eras and periods that endlessly telescope.  Chapter One begins with a young journalist hack becoming intrigued by the first glimpse of a silent film siren whose brother says she is “a fly in amber. In stasis. In inertia.”  While the book itself is fluid, with characters and settings that seem to exist in several times at once.   As alluded to in the answer above, I find it fascinating to see people who’ve been dead for years coming back to life through celluloid – and appearing so young and full of life in moving images on screens. It is magical. It is also sad to see those flickering shadowy lives and to know they are made of only light.  But, there’s something else that I explore, and that is iconic sexual appeal and how it can transcend the years; even if in real life it is transient. That’s the true glamour of film for me. The element of eternity; for as long as that film can be preserved – which is also a problem with old stock as the celluloid is so fragile, degrading and melting, and also – because of its flammability – a truly dangerous fire hazard.

Leda’s memories of her film career are filled with tricks and mysteries.  This has struck me in all your books, an interest in the mysterious, from the lure of Victorian spiritualism and the occult to the use of illusions, how easily believers can be duped, particularly in performance, whether onstage or in photography and film.  When Ed Peters announces, “I don’t believe that psychic stuff,” it made me wonder.  Where are you on the spectrum of believers and skeptics?  If you’d asked me twenty years ago, I’d probably say I believed in ghosts. I’ve certainly had some experiences that it’s very hard to rationalize. But, looking back, I wonder – was my mind seeing things in peculiar ways because of the grieving process, because I couldn’t bear to let my loved ones go away so soon?  This is something I was keen to explore in the character of Ed, who’s still grieving for someone dear to him when he first comes to meet with Leda Grey – perhaps too keen to transfer his need for love and affection onto a woman old enough to be his grandmother, and who – much to his confusion and shame – he is also sexually drawn towards when he sees her embodied in silent films.

As I grow older myself – as I lose those who are dear to me, I have been thinking more and more about how short our lives can be, aging and degrading just like that fragile celluloid. And how easily we forget the past; all those generations who came before whose knowledge and dreams and experiences can still enrich our lives today. I try to make some sense of this.  But it isn’t just general history, or the memories of friends and family that influenced my writing – it’s also the visual inspirations that made such an impact on my youth – with films like The Haunting, or Dead of Night which I saw when I was much too young; the terror of which has remained engrained and still chills me to this very day. There is also The Singing Ringing Tree, or The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe – East European and French Children’s TV Shows screened here in the 1960’s. They are both eccentric and gothic in tone, with a sense of darker other worlds. I was really quite obsessed with them, with their magic and their mystery. I’m sure they helped to ‘wire’ me, and to make the writer I am today.

img_0499What’s next for Essie Fox?  This is my fourth novel, with the first being published in 2011. To be honest, I think I need a break – a chance to get out in the world a bit more, to see the friends and family I’ve neglected over the past five years. My house also needs some attention if I want to stop it crumbling and ending up in the same state as White Cliff House in Leda Grey.  But having said that I already have at least three new ideas in mind. The question is can I resist the siren songs that are calling me?
One is a YA adventure with a contemporary character who finds himself flung backwards in time when he enters a sort of vortex.  The second is also contemporary – but will have another historical thread, with links to the local folklore from Herefordshire where I once lived.  The third is a political thriller, filled with sex and scandal. But I might need to consult a lawyer or two before I make a start on that!

The Last Days of Leda Grey was published by Orion Books on 3 November 2016 in the UK.  Essie Fox will be at the Sidney Cooper Gallery on Friday 8 December for Writing Comes Alive, for Canterbury Christ Church. Come on out and say hello!  For more information on Essie Fox, her first three Victorian thrillers, or to dive into the first chapter of The Last Days of Leda Grey, please visit her website:     


The Literary Sofa

sofa-argos-expand-feshwari-sofaYesterday, I was the special guest of The Literary Sofa host, Isabel Costello.  Somehow, my name got picked out of a hat and I won lunch!  And my, but it was wonderful. (I had the smoked swordfish carpaccio and a Tuscan bean & cavolo nero ribllita, since you ask, with tiramisu for pud.)  These, plus a very welcome glass of bubbles, were just the thing for a rainy day in London, though the highlight was, of course, a great few hours of book talk, where Isabel tried to add to my TBR stack and, admittedly, combat my reading funk.
The Literary Sofa is my favourite book blog.  Isabel is a perceptive and generous reader with her eye peeled to find the best new books – particularly those that arrive with less fanfare than others, and – much welcome – books in translation.  Her quarterly Sofa Spotlights are the place to go if you’re looking for book ideas.  Winter’s includes a new gothic tale by Essie Fox, debut novels by Fiona Melrose and Saleem Haddad, and books from Holland, Portugal and Korea.
41m5dwp-fl-_ux250_Isabel Costello is, of course, an author in her own right as well.  Her debut, Paris Mon Amour, has received a clutch of fantastic reviews, such as this one from Essie Fox’s blog.  Paris Mon Amour is digital-only from Canelo.  Click here to have a look and a download.  I, for one, can’t wait to read it.  Soon as my reading funk passes, I’ll be there like a shot!   (Here’s Isabel on a very smart sofa.  Sorry not to have a picture of the two of us to hand – too busy stuffing aforementioned carpaccio into gob, apparently…)
Thank you very much, Isabel – for lunch, great book chat & the marvellous Literary Sofa.  Cheers!

Library Love

My favourite library is always changing.  When I was small, it vacillated between the hushed dark of the Sierra Madre Public Library, with its polished wood shelves and its stern librarians, and the tiny, mobile library at the edge of the parking lot in a small town in the High Desert, where I most found myself.  There was no hush here.  You could hardly fit more than one or two readers inside.  The air was filled with sand dust and the librarians let me take out a shopping bag full of books at a time, when they realised I could come in only once a week or so.  It is not a huge achievement to say that I read the entire children’s section, and then moved on to consume their gothics – it is thanks to the librarians of Lucerne Valley that I found Mary Stewart, Phyllis Whitney — and Charlotte Bronte – and then on to their thrillers, their mysteries.  They did not censor reading.  They encouraged experimentation, even though their stock was extremely limited, and they often thanked me for “rotating” what stock their way, by checking things that that, perhaps, few had.  It’s long gone now, but libraries will always be my safe place.  Here, in London, it is still the same.

WelcomeCollection_ReadingRoom_SCP_7a-1500x938Here in London, my favourite library is a far cry from a dusty desert.  Whenever I can, I trundle in to the wonderful Wellcome Collection, to stare at their collections, which include “medical oddities and artefacts”, gape at the magnificent new Reading Room, and then plug myself in at a long table in the Wellcome Library.  Here’s a little more about it, on The Prime Writers site:

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 09.59.48

Three cheers for libraries – hip hip!

Release your inner librarian…

normal_your-very-own-library-kit-1I grew up with a love of libraries.  Show me a writer who didn’t.  I loved the hush of them, whether in the cool and shade of the old, dark wood library of my LA hometown or the heat and dust of the mobile library permanently parked in the car park of the small desert town where I spent every holiday.  I loved card catalogues and flipping through their typed entries, the swish and click of the drawers.  I loved the pocket that held the ticket for the book, where you could see all the people who had checked out the book before you, or not.  I loved the date stamp.  Mostly, I loved walking down the shelves and picking a spine at random, convinced the universe had put that book there for me to find at that very moment.  I still believe that.

I fell in love with random books found on many a shelf in the children’s section:  Andrew Lang’s many colours of fairy books; Witches of Worm + The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder; Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth by E. L. Konigsburg; anything and everything about witches, Indians, the American Revolution, magic doors, dinosaurs, girls who went away to boarding schools.  I fell in love in the adult section, too, grateful for librarians who let you check out books too old for you.  They know that Jane Eyre is perfect for a twelve year old and that, maybe, The Old Man and the Sea isn’t, but that you’re trying to grow.  Before I left LA, they built the most glorious library downtown, filled with art and light and books, before they knew that people would want to be in downtown LA again.  The library led the regeneration, as they always have.  These are my temples, these libraries.

Release your inner librarian with your own home library kit.  A friend on Twitter sent me the link to this and I think it is about the best thing ever, after tea.  I particularly like the book they chose to advertise their kit.  I don’t know who the makers are, but I love them.  Happy stamping!

Why I bring writers into my house

Picture this:  a long lounge filled with writers – at all stages of their careers – and readers, crowded together on sofas and chairs, full glasses to hand, to hear a writer read from her/his work and to have a wonderful, literary conversation. Does that sound like your perfect night?  Me, too.  This is why I invite writers to come to my house, to my long lounge, because I want to be a part of these conversations.  And if I don’t host them – who will?

It’s all Inua Ellams fault.  This sparky poet visited my house as part of his whistle-stop tour of Britain (7 living rooms, 7 cities, 7 nights) to celebrate his latest collection.  After hosting Inua, I had the bug and it continued to bite, with recent visits by Betty Herbert and, this past weekend, a reading to celebrate the paperback launch of Vanessa Gebbie’s The Coward’s Tale, as well as a sold-out workshop for 10 lucky local-ish writers.

Obviously, this system of producing events relies on the generosity of writers – writers who will expect to have their books available at your event.  Any writer you approach can give you the name of their publisher’s publicity department; they, in turn, will put you in touch with accounts, so that you can arrange for ordering the books – often at a discount so that you can, in turn, pass the discount on to your audiences or use the “profit margin” to cover the writer’s travel costs.  Local writers and writers with smaller publishing houses may opt to bring the books to you, so that you can sell for them.  Really, all you have to do is ask with enthusiasm and a sense of how many books you might hope to sell as a result, so that the writer can gauge if it feels right for them.  Writers are always looking for ways to meet new readers and no one is offended at being considered and approached.  If it doesn’t feel like an opportunity they will say no, as is their right.

Once you have a writer in place and you’re done doing your happy dance, what next?  How does it work?  The main thing to stress here is – I have no funding.  I used to have funding to produce live literature events, but I no longer do.  However, you shouldn’t let a little thing like the lack of funding get in your way!  All you need is a space.  I use my living room  because I don’t have to hire it and I don’t have to fit around other people’s schedules or rules or regulars.  I have run plenty of events in pubs, libraries, arts centres, etc., and none of them is as cozy or inviting as your own house, whatever its size.  Audiences are remarkably forgiving and resilient if they see that you are doing your best and have taken charge of the bum-to-cushion ratio.  You might like to offer tea or put out a donations cup to cover the cost of offering wine.  Jumbo glasses are available here for a pound, as well as pitchers of juice and (entirely gratis) tap water.  You also need a way of getting the word out, so that you aren’t leaning on your friends to fill every event, and a way of vetting who’s coming – you are your own security if your house is your venue.  Certainly, be cautious about posting your address anywhere via social networking – I communicate by email with everyone before they get my details.

Introduce the writer and take charge of when the event starts and ends.  The writer just wants to do what she does best and doesn’t want to worry about logistics.  Take charge of when and how books get sold, keeping track of how many are sold and remembering to have a float for change – everyone will turn up having just come from the cash point.  Consider having some diversity in your programming – invite a fellow local writer to “open” for the writer, or have some kind of “ice breaker” activity – we have shown short films on topic as well as run non-threatening writing exercises, so that non-writers can take part, anxiety-free.  Inua suggested magicians and belly dancers were nice openers for poets – who am I to disagree?

The real reason why I bring writers to my house is to be a part of their journey and to help it along as best I can, whether I know the writer well or not.  As publishers struggle to market the full output of their list, especially during the transition from hardback to paper, we writers and readers can work to fill the gap.  In fact, it is reclaiming an old tradition of literary salons, which featured hosted gatherings of cultural and intellectual folk for debate and edification. They used to take part in drawing rooms and coffee houses – now, they take place in grand hotels and venues across Britain – as well as in humble living rooms, like mine. If you’re looking to make a difference in your community – or in a writer’s professional life – why not consider hosting your own salon?  And if you haven’t the where-with-all to use your home, partner with your library or a local bookstore, who will be grateful for the support and the help in attracting an audience, or a function room in your local pub, which will welcome a crowd of drinkers on a slow night.  My thanks to Vanessa and to Bloomsbury, her publisher, who made this weekend easy – and to friends, old and new, who came into my living room and left with new books and new ideas for their own writing and reading.  What more do we want than that?

As for me, my own book is due at the end of next week.  No more from me here until I press send!

The Slippery Slink

“They seek by day. They seek by night.
Those Nazis seek with all their might.
Of sleep they cannot catch a wink,
Nor can they catch the Slippery Slink!”

This comes from “Adventure”, a wartime comic book dated May 4th 1940.  It’s issue No. 966.  According to the cover, which features “The Human Torpedo Lands in Britain” and “Free – War Savings for Boys Named Inside!”, it comes out every Monday and is priced at 2d. Inside, you find “The News-Rangers Round-Up”, a story “How the Heroes of Finland Fought On!” and “The Nazi Torpedo – How a Nazi skipper scuttles his ship – in a Suffolk creek”.  But my favourite has to be The Slippery Slink and the tale of how clever British actors and musicians, assembled as The League of Slinks, rescues scientist Paul Grunow from his Unter den Linden shop window prison, guarded by the Gestapo and “Gasbag Goebbels”, who is ultimately doped and swapped for the prisoner.  At the story’s end, next week’s story is plugged and the boys are asked to make a guess how the Slink’s next daring exploit will come out.

But this is all I know about the mysterious Slippery Slink and his British band, foiling the Nazis at every turn.  It’s another example of how the war was “sold” to children, from Nazi board games whose “challenge” was to make a town “Jew-free” to “Mein Kampf comic books” and Hitler paper dolls.  Adventure readers are urged to cut out a war stamp in the comic book and post it to Fleet Street in the hope of winning a War Savings Certificate – “every one helps to fight against Britain’s enemies.”  In an era of “total war” it’s no surprise that the war is everywhere that children look.  But I can’t help wonder if it made it easier for them to understand the war by feeling that they were a part of it.  It wasn’t a discussion had in the next room, after they’d gone to bed.  It wasn’t a war that was just for grown ups.  Even Adventure tells them, “Come on, Boys! Do your bit for Britain!”  Meanwhile, do you know anything about the Slippery Slink?  If so, do let me know.

The Power of Blurbs

Michel Faber made me do it. Such is the power of blurbs.

The cover of Jenny Erpenbeck’s “Visitation” says, courtesy of Mr. Faber: “Extraordinarily strong… Erpenbeck is one of the finest, most exciting authors alive.”  He stops just short of an exclamation mark.  So far, so blurby.  But it wasn’t the blurb that caught my attention, it was his spiky review in the Guardian.  His opening made me sit up: “At its worst, the British literary scene behaves like a community of nerdy parochialists who imagine themselves to be cosmopolitans, fretting about whether there can be any great novels any more now that Amis is past it and Updike has died. The ongoing story of literature in foreign languages is barely noticed, a background pixel in the all-important anglophone display.”  He derides the appearance of a book that can only be Freedom, and wonders why the British “struggle” to understand, say, middle class American nuance, but seem to be disinterested in any works in translation – and particularly German ones.

As someone actively looking for German work in translation, I was grateful to Faber for pointing the book out to me.  As I had never seen it in a bookshop – and have yet to see it – I ordered in on line and was delighted that, when it arrived, slim in its cardboard sleeve, it was only 150 pages.  I do like a short book, especially when it is tackling 24,000 years of history on one piece of land.  (This, in and of itself is not remarkable. James Michner made it his speciality, and if there is a better history of one place from prehistory to the present than Centennial, I would take some convincing.)  But Centennial is a big book. A proper door stop. At page 150 in Michener’s, you might still be wandering around with dinosaurs.

The rest of this blog could go on to be a standard review of Erpenbeck’s book, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  I would tell you that I admired the device of the Gardener character who links the chapters that move through the history of a house, from inhabitant to inhabitant.  He never speaks.  We watch the land change through his eyes; we see the circumstances of the house change through his chores, which mark his eventual decline.  I would tell you that Erpenbeck is able to create fully realised characters in what might look to be quick sketches, but are actually careful and specific wood cuts, deep and dark.  But I’m no fiction critic.  I am a wholly selfish reader, looking only for what I want.  It limits my reading to be sure, at least the pleasure of reading, reading as I am through that filter or, perhaps, those cross hairs.

I am looking for German writers to tell me what I do not know about how it is to be German.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.  It is a great expectation.  Do I really expect a writer to deal with the whole of their cultural history in any one book?  Sadly, for me, yes.  For me, a really good book is not only a window on a world but a lift shaft, going down.  I want to understand how the world of the book is affected by the history of the people and the place, and also to see how the world of the book will affect the future, whenever that is.  I do not want a book that is relentlessly “present”.  And I mean not only the back stories of characters and their parents, grandparents, but also their ancestors, their ghosts, their culture’s failures and race’s migrations.  I want to know how the uses of land have changed.  I want to know where the graves are.  The problem for me – you will have seen this one coming – is that I’m American.  I have no German ancestors.  Not a one.  My second book is a history that is not “mine”, and it makes me afraid, just a little, to write it.

Of course, I have written it.  I have a finished first draft.  I will begin the second draft on Monday.  And I will begin my rewrite without reading the first draft.  I don’t need to.  I already know what I wrote and that it is not “right”.  I have written a draft of what happens in the book, as if it is the story I would tell you in a pub.  It is all plot and story and characters doing what it is that they do and, sometimes, why.  What I don’t have is a history for them or their worlds that is deep enough, rich enough, to satisfy.  What I know and have written is “correct” but I know it is not – right, not enough.  I know who it is to be those characters, living in those moments.  But I don’t have the weight of their histories in me.  A marvellous exemplar of this kind of work is Louise Erdrich.  No doubt, she deserves a blog of her own. That will be for next time.

Suffice to say, I still have books of war that I am ploughing through.  I am still making sure my history is “correct”.  But I am also looking for – something else.  Something richer, deeper, darker.  Something I don’t yet know.  Erpenbeck got me some of the way there.  But I’m greedy. It wasn’t far enough.

How much is too much?

It depends on the question, of course. Are you asking about tea? Then the answer is – there is never enough. There is never enough tea!

If you’re asking about research, well… that’s a different matter entirely.  I am packing up research to follow husband on tour.  For my first novel I had a reasonable number of research books, mostly autobiographies of plural wives and history books of the West.  The bulk of the research was done on-line, as I learned growing cycles in the Oklahoma Panhandle and got to grips with the politics of rapeseed and Monsanto.  (You’re wanting to read it, now, aren’t you?)  This second book is a different kettle of fish.  I’ve taken a little picture of the essentials.  This is after I’ve pruned, mind:  

The basket is the absolute, absolute essentials: crucial research, maps, postcards, propaganda. One basket worth was plenty, I told myself, and started packing.  The bookshelves hold books I’m either still using or haven’t started to use, with reference on the top shelf and fiction on the bottom.  Most of those books will have to come along for the ride as well, or I run the risk of having to replace them.  The standing files on the table are transcripts and interviews of primary research from my interviews or from the sound archives of the Imperial War Museum.  So, I’ll probably need them – better safe, eh?  The wool – well, that is research indeed.  I am an appalling knitter, but my characters are not.  It was the primary female activity on the Isle of Man, the one thing that all of them – Nazi, Jewish, Communist or Manx – had in common.  But I might not need all those needles.

The towers of white A4 paper are drafts of the first novel. Can I leave them behind while the first novel is in a state of flux?  I think I shall have to.  After all, I plan to return with brand new paper towers. I shall try to leave the enormous dictionary, my grandmother’s, and will most certainly leave great-grandfather’s table behind.  But everything else in the picture is coming. How else could I write?

Of course, I could make it all digital.  I am putting what I can into the research folders of Scrivener, but that tends to be new stuff I come across, mostly on-line.  There’s no point trying to come over all Google books and digitise books I already have, books I want to read and highlight and argue with as paper objects, thank you very much.  I resolve to fold down the back seat and stuff them all into the car.  Who needs clothes?

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