novel

what kind of heart does it take - an evening with alison jean lester

She read. She sang (beautifully). She told us how her latest novel came to be. It was wonderful.

She read. She sang (beautifully). She told us how her latest novel came to be. It was wonderful.

On Thursday night at Daunt Books in Hampstead, I attended an author event by my friend Alison Jean Lester. We were greeted with shots of sake and Japanese rice crackers, and then the evening began, with an intimate and enthusiastic group of us gathered on a dark night in a gorgeous little bookshop. Alison is not only a very fine, observant and witty writer, she also used to work as a corporate communications coach so she knows how to work a room. I knew I was in for a fun evening!

sake-rice-crackers

Alison read an excerpt from her first novel Lillian on Life (one of my favourite reads of 2015) and then she sang us a Japanese folk song which she used to sing to her children, who were born in Japan. It was like a little meditation, the perfect bridge to the discussion of her latest novel, Yuki Means Happiness

A line from the song Alison sang was "what kind of heart does it take?" and she posed that as a question that fiction writers should ask themselves when starting the story they want to tell. What kind of heart does it take to endure/pursue what the story is asking? How will that heart be changed? Broken? Mended?

We talked a bit about the process of putting your real-life experiences into your fiction - something I am very familiar with (and didn't quite manage to pull off, hence why my book was a memoir in the end!). "The great thing about fiction is that you have control in a way you don't have in life," Alison said. "If someone fell under a train in real life, in fiction you can change that, you can save them. Or, you can let someone go under a train and save yourself!"

Alison also said she finds the whole "how autobiographical is this novel?" question that is often asked of women writers quite flattering - "because it means they think it really happened. It's a compliment to your writing." 

Ultimately, Alison advised us to "write about what haunts you". To ask questions of our characters that we might have asked of ourselves, once upon a time. To have a character take a path you did not. 

Me and Alison, with her two brilliant novels. 

Me and Alison, with her two brilliant novels. 

I thought deeply about this on my train home. The character in my novel is in a very similar situation to the one I found myself in 12 years ago and what she is doing to save the marriage is something I never, not for a split second, entertained - trying to have a child in the hope that it will heal the rift between them. I have been struggling with the novel lately, fearful that everything is a bit two-dimensional. I have done so much reading, so much research, and I know what I want to say and who these people are - I just haven't found the right way in yet. I have the key but it hasn't fit in any of the locks I've tried. Is this a way into the story, I wonder, to imagine an alternative future for myself, a path I might well have taken had a few things been different?

It was such an inspiring and wonderful evening, and it pumped me up in a way I hadn't realised I needed. I must make an effort to go to things like this more often because when I do, I feel like I'm among peers, among friends. I feel seen, heard and understood, even when I say very little and just listen. Writers are my people. And you can't help but feel uplifted when you're with your people. 

I'm currently reading Yuki Means Happiness and it's marvellous (as I thought it would be!). If you enjoy thoughtful and funny writing that makes you think about life, I highly recommend seeking out Alison's books!

if you want eternity you must be fearless: my favourite reads of 2016

Let's get something out in the open straight away - 2016 was a sucky old year in many, many respects and I for one was not sorry to see the back of it. This year, 2017, already feels lighter, like the heavy energy of the last twelve months has lifted. That said, there are still a few loose ends to be tied up and one of them was deciding on my favourite reads of the year and sharing them on the old blog, as has become a Phil Tradition.

I thought it would be hard to narrow down, as always, but for a change there was a clear winner....the book I was most excited about in 2016 and most enjoyed reading, in fact I enjoyed it so much I read it twice in two months, was The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose (Allen and Unwin, 2016).  It hasn't been released in physical form in the UK, so last September when one of my best friends was visiting, she brought me a copy over, mere weeks after release! 

The Museum of Modern Love  by Heather Rose

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose

Heather is one of my heroes. She has been publishing wonderful, exquisitely written fiction, for adults and children, for the best part of two decades now. Whenever someone has asked me in the past to name my favourite writers, and I listed Heather among them, nine times out of ten they wouldn't have heard of her. But this novel is getting her some much deserved and long overdue attention in Australian literary circles - in fact, it's been shortlisted for this year's Stella Prize.  (UPDATE: it won!!)

"I think art saves people all the time."

The Museum of Modern Love seems like such a simple story on the surface, but Heather Rose is in fact threading together many, multi-layered, complex themes and ideas, highlighting that simplicity is often a guise for the most complicated things, art most of all.

Intertwined with a unique exploration of art - what it is, what it isn't, how do you get it to mean something, how does the public's reaction to it influence its meaning and power - is a story about love, loss, grief, heartbreak, betrayal and, most of all, courage. 

The novel takes place against the backdrop of a real life event - the three-month performance of 'The Artist is Present' by Marina Abramovic in New York City in 2010. For those who don't know, the piece involved the artist sitting still for 7 hours a day and inviting members of the public to sit opposite her. There was no interaction in the traditional sense - no touching, no speaking - but artist and audience member sat opposite each other and held eye contact, for however short or long a time as the audience member wanted, or could bear. Many found it a very moving experience and came back again, to sit opposite the artist, and to be seen by her. 

"She watched as the final hours of The Artist is Present passed by, sitter after sitter in a gaze with the woman across the table. Jane felt she had witnessed a thing of inexplicable beauty among humans who had been drawn to this art and had found the reflection of a great mystery. What are we? How should we live?"

In The Museum of Modern Love, a fictional tale unravels about several people who find themselves witnessing, or participating, in Abramovic's performance and how it affects their lives. The central character is Arky Levin, a celebrated composer of film scores, who is grieving for his terminally-ill wife who hasn't physically died yet but, out of supposedly wanting to spare him grief, moved herself into a care facility and cut off all contact with him.  His 22 year old daughter also seems to want little to do with him. Unsurprisingly, Arky finds inspiration is eluding him. Arky somehow ends up at "The Artist is Present" and, over the course of the next three months, watches the performance unfold and various aspects of his life untangle in response. 

I loved the insight into the creative process from perspectives other than writing and acting - the visual arts, architecture, music composition. For a novel, it is a remarkable manual for artists. It even opens with Marina Abramovic's "Seven Steps" (which I now have pinned on the wall above my writing desk).

Therefore, for me, The Museum of Modern Love is almost a manifesto. Heather Rose is asking us, as we read, to think about art and how we connect with it. Connection, after all, as shown through the interweaving stories of all the novel's characters, is what matters, and art is one of the most powerful ways we can connect with each other. But it takes courage to connect, because in reaching out, in asking to be seen, we make ourselves vulnerable. That is art too. Making art is an act of courage. Therefore, live (and create art) with courage. That is the key ingredient.

This is an original, beautiful and utterly compelling novel. I never tire of Heather's writing - to me, her words are like fine wine, only improving with time.

"Art will wake you up. Art will break your heart. There will be glorious days. If you want eternity you must be fearless."

But wait, there's more

There were so many other books I read in 2016 that I loved, that gave me great comfort, that made me laugh and think, that have been consigned to shelves all within easy reach so I can refer to them again. Here are a few of them!

A Notable Woman  by Jean Lucey Pratt

A Notable Woman by Jean Lucey Pratt

 

I did a lot of research for my current work in progress, which involved reading a lot of war diaries, biographies and history texts about 1940s London. The best of these were A Notable Woman by Jean Lucey Pratt (Canongate, 2015) and Millions Like Us by Virginia Nicholson (Penguin, 2012). 

Jean Lucey Pratt was a lifelong diarist who also contributed to the Mass Observation project. Her collected diaries - A Notable Woman - cover nearly her whole life, from her first diary as a child in the 1920s to her old age in the 1980s. She was my age during the second world war and her diaries of course focus on those events but also her daily life and concerns, her dreams, anxieties and longings which for the most part remained unchanged by the war and all its dramas and hardships. She was still a woman who was figuring out who she was and what she wanted, and often pondered about all the what ifs, missed chances and the might-have-beens. It made me realise that the only thing that distinguishes each decade in history is technology - the human heart, with all its wants and needs, remains the same. I enjoyed her later years as much as I did the war years. She was funny, brave and inspiring. This book was a joy to read.

Millions Like Us is also a fascinating read, following the lives of a dozen women of various ages and backgrounds and the changes inn their lives over the course of the second world war.....and, most interestingly for me, what happened once peace came. The seeds of the feminist revolution that came a few decades later were sown, but many were keen for life to resume as it was, which made things very complicated. It was absolutely enthralling to read and an impressive piece of work, I highly recommend it.

Nobody Told Me  by Hollie McNish

Nobody Told Me by Hollie McNish

Another of my favourite reads of last year was Nobody Told Me (Blackfriars, 2016), a poetry collection by Hollie McNish, which has since won the 2016 Ted Hughes Award. It is a collection of stories, taken from diaries the poet kept during her pregnancy and the early days and years of her daughter's life, of being a young parent in modern Britain. To put it simply - everyone should read Nobody Told Me. Parents, people who want to be parents, and people who don't want to be parents. Those who are and do will feel some solidarity and understanding, those who don't will have their ignorance smashed to smithereens. After reading this book you'll never think 'why would you bring a child on a train at peak hour?' ever again. Hollie's voice is mesmerising, raw, vulnerable, honest, and full of joy. I applaud her and her bravery.

The Course of Love  by Alain de Botton

The Course of Love by Alain de Botton

I was also blown away by The Course of Love by Alain de Botton (Simon & Schuster, 2016). Known for his wonderful works of non-fiction, this time de Botton has written a novel that follows the relationship of Rabih and Kirsten over, as the title suggests, the course of their love.

This isn't your typical novel, that's for sure. It reads like a case history in parts, like philosophy in others, and there are other sections where  the writing is very lyrical indeed. Whichever genre you think it might fit best, it is a stunning exploration of what it takes to have a successful long term relationship. I think we all know that falling in love is easy. It is the maintaining of that love over the long term, over the course of our lives, that is the real challenge. 

Basically, the Romantic notion of love is what sets so many of us up for a fall. Romance is only part of the story. We are ready for marriage, de Botton writes, when we are prepared to love rather than be loved and compatibility, he explains, is an achievement of love - it shouldn't be a precondition. 

The exploration of this particular marriage between Rabih and Kirsten covers pretty much everything - disillusionment, loss of desire, adultery, "immature rages, late-night threats of divorce, sullen silences, slammed doors and everyday acts of thoughtlessness and cruelty", as well as the loneliness and fear of being vulnerable that can be felt in long term relationships. Alain de Botton has a voyeur's eye as he zooms in on Rabih and Kirsten, going beyond their physical bodies and into their hearts and minds, where he can see everything and how their past experiences, childhood traumas, their earliest experiences of love and what it meant and how you were supposed to show it, are now playing out in their marriage.  

There are many truths in The Course of Love, some of which (having been through a divorce and now having been repartnered for nearly a decade) I knew very intimately. Some of de Botton's observations were so accurate they made me squirm a little. I highlighted a lot of passages on my Kindle version!

Ultimately, I came away from reading this wonderful, wise book feeling reassured and comforted. Human beings are complicated and no relationship is perfect. Love can be quite messy, entailing a lot of compromise, and de Botton's stance is that you can only ever really love and make a success out of a long term relationship if you are prepared to accept that your partner isn't perfect and inevitably they will disappoint you. So much of our disillusionment in life comes from expecting people (not just our lovers, our friends and families too) to be mind readers and meet our needs without our ever having to articulate them, so we need to take a bit more responsibility for ourselves and our own happiness, rather than pour all our hopes into one person.  Also, the occasional blips that you might worry about are actually far more common than you think (well, that, or Alain de Botton must have had my house bugged at some point!).

I think this book should be compulsory reading for anyone thinking about getting married. Having got divorced at 26, when I remarried at 29 I think I definitely went into it with my eyes wide open and with realistic expectations - spare yourself what I went through in my first marriage to get to that point, however, and read The Course of Love instead! 

I could go on about all the books I read and enjoyed last year - if you want to see them, and what I'm reading on a more regular basis than once a year, I am on Goodreads and you are welcome to add me as a friend! 

The best book of 2017 so far? For me, it would have to be Between A Wolf and A Dog by Georgia Blain. I read it in the first few days of January and the poetic and moving experience of reading it I hope bodes well for the rest of my reading year (it has so far). 

What was the best book you read in 2016? 

 

 

 

from the archives: my experience on an arvon novel writing course (part 5)

Another suitcase in another hall.....

Another suitcase in another hall.....

This week I've been sharing the blog posts I wrote about my experience at an Arvon writing course, to mark seven years since the experience! Please see this post for background and parts 2 , 3 and 4 to catch up so far.

This post originally appeared on my blog Green Ink in April 2010, and has been slightly edited.

Friday 9th April 2010

The last full day on the Arvon course. Hard to believe, really. It's been amazing what writing something every day has done for me. It's reemphasised to me just how important it is, as any successful writer will tell you, to just show up every day and write. It doesn't matter what you write, or whether it's any good. You just have to do it. It sounds easy, doesn't it? But the truth is, it's hard. It's very, very hard. If it were easy, there would be no need for courses like this really. I don't know what my own reasons for avoidance have been - perhaps a whole host of psychological barriers it would take a textbook to explain, perhaps just pure laziness. Wanting to get out there and live life rather than just write about it, maybe.

This morning was our final class, with Morag, on plot. She showed us a photo she'd taken on holiday in New Zealand a few months ago. It was a sign in a shop window. We had to come up with a character, a set of circumstances and a things that gave them solace, grief and uncertainty. From this we were to develop a plot.

I don't think I stopped writing for the entire two hours. I was completely lost in it. Words, ideas, energy just flew out of me. Facts, history, real life timelines had no place. It was just up to me, so off I went.

Until that moment, I had forgotten how much fun writing is. I hadn't written this way since I was at school - well over ten years. Something was unlocked. My cheeks were pink and my eyes were bright. I felt energised, happy and excited about what I'd written. It's been ages since I've felt like that.

Went and had lunch, and then joined some of the girls on a little drive down to Loch Ness. Snapped photos of the vast, impressive Loch. You only have to look at it to know that it's bottomless.

Then we returned to Moniack and I went upstairs to work. I was still buzzing with the energy of what I'd written earlier. I loaded up The Memory of Us and stared at the last bit I'd written, feeling dull. My eyes hurt looking at it. I didn't want to try and write anything. The energy I had from earlier was bouncing off that impenetrable, invisible wall.

I was so very frustrated. I picked up my journal and reread the story I'd written by hand in my journal that morning. It was pretty good, I thought. It sparkled. It had wit and vivacity and a sense of fun - all things I want my writing to have. So I just thought I'd type it up, from the notes. Just to have my fingers moving, to be doing something instad of sitting there, stewing, feeling frustrated.

So I typed it up and enjoyed every minute of it. Tweaked a few things, but I typed away until I got to the natural point of conclusion and then sat back and surveyed the work I'd done. Two hours had just flown by.

Then I had to think about what I was going to read at the group gathering that evening. Everyone had been asked to read a small selection of their work - it could be anything we wished, anything we were particularly pleased with or attached to, anything we felt showcased us well as writers.

So I clicked my mouse over the still open Memory of Us document. Read through it. Well, skim read it really. All the words and thoughts blurred together. It really is the dullest thing on the face of the earth. Well, maybe I'm being too harsh. I noted a few random paragraphs where I thought "that's pretty good" or "I like that", but these were just lone paragraphs, unrelated, from different parts of the story. I had to read aloud for at least 5 minutes and I had maybe 60 seconds worth that I was happy with?!

Then it hit me. 127 pages. Over 40,000 words. And there wasn't any significant chunk of it I felt was worth reading aloud to people. I felt like I'd been whacked in the chest.

And then I looked at the story I'd just written. Granted, it was only a first draft and wasn't perfect, but I liked it! It had something! I liked Viv and Rose and Col. I wanted to know more about them. I wanted to know what happened at the Auckland Cup. I wanted to know what happened to that ten dollar note that Helen Clark used to pay for the brooch.

I wanted to read that story aloud. I felt that those couple of hours I'd spent on that story had revealed so much about what kind of writer I want to be.

And so I sat, as I let the enormity of the decision I was about to make sink in.

Yes, I'm terrible and will make you wait for the next bit. Ha ha!! :) 

from the archives: my experience on an arvon novel writing course (part 1)

O n the inside, looking out?   My room on the Arvon course at Moniack Mhor,   Inverness, Scotland - April 2010

On the inside, looking out? My room on the Arvon course at Moniack Mhor, Inverness, Scotland - April 2010

This week, it's been seven years since I went on the Arvon course that changed the course of my writing life. It was on that course that I realised my work needed to go in a different direction. A week or so after I returned, I began the first, most embryonic (and unrecognisable!) draft of what five years later would become my first published book, The Latte Years

I wrote about the experience on my blog at the time, which I archived about five years ago now, and a few days ago I spent a fun nostalgic few hours looking through all those old posts. Ironically, I think that blog was a far more honest blog than the other one I kept at the time, the one that was more popular. Green Ink showed the real me, rather than just one side of me. I feel excited to explore all of that again, in this space. 

I loved sharing my Arvon experience and so I thought, for fun, I'd repost them here. I haven't been on another course since, but I hope that will change in the near future! It really was the start of a new chapter and I remember it with nothing but fondness. I think a few things have changed in the intervening years - the centre where I did my course, Moniack Mhor, is no longer part of Arvon but an independent writing centre, I believe, but I would still highly recommend Arvon. I can only imagine the courses themselves have got better as the years have gone by! 

So, if you'd like to travel to a writing retreat in Scotland with me in 2010, please read on! I'll post all of them over the next few days, to coincide with the seven years that have passed.

**

This originally appeared on my blog Green Ink in April 2010, and has been slightly edited.

I went to Arvon to work on a novel I've been trying to write for three years.

To give you a bit of background: this novel was inspired by the life of a woman I knew as a child, who was a writer. Like myself, she was born in to a large family in Tasmania (75 years earlier than me) and then came to England in her mid twenties with a desire for adventure and to live where the great poets and writers lived. She didn't bank on getting caught up in the second world war, however, nor on meeting a poet who became her husband. After barely surviving the war, they returned to Tasmania on an extended holiday but ended up staying there for the rest of their lives. As well as writing, they were campaigners for social justice and also heavily involved and interested in environmental causes which came into the spotlight in the 1970s. Her husband died in the early 1980s, the year I was born actually, and she mourned him the rest of her life. 

I knew her only for three brief years. My family and I had moved into a house two doors down from hers when I was ten years old. I don’t really recall how we became a part of each other’s lives, but in the two years we lived in that house in Mount Stuart, she became as much of a friend to me as my school friends my own age – but more so. This was someone whose wisdom and experience and knowledge I was in awe of, and I soaked everything she told me up like a dry sponge. I used to run down to her house every afternoon after school and show her, with childish pride, my latest story or poem, and always, without fail, she would praise it, and make me think that one day, one day, I could see something I had written in a book too. 

We became very close, even though the only way we communicated was through writing things down (she had lost her hearing through illness some fifteen years earlier). I remember her house being filled with paper, like a park is filled with golden leaves in the autumn. Everywhere you looked, there was paper.

Ruth was my first mentor, and the person who made me want to be a writer. She passed away when I was thirteen. I was devastated. Yet somehow, I knew her spirit had not left.

Fast forward to 2006. I was nearly 25. I started writing a short story, and the voice that came out of it was unmistakably Ruth's. I had not consciously thought of her for many years at that point. But as I tried to write about the love story, her meeting her husband in London in the last golden years of the thirties, my own world was collapsing. Writing about a wonderful marriage when my own had reached its inevitable painful end, and writing about someone following their dreams when I was too scared to even walk into a travel agent to book a ticket to London, was a harder task than I could manage. The story was put away.

2007. I had just moved to London. I started my first job, in Bloomsbury, and I found myself thinking about Ruth all the time. I got out the book she compiled in tribute to her husband, Forty Friends, which I had for some reason brought with me. I discovered that her place of work, in the late 1930s, was only a block away from my own. The story was brought out again. It was full of holes and gaps. But I wrote and wrote and wrote, try to get blood out of the stone, and for a while, thought of little else.

There were so many coincidences and uncanny twists of fate that led me closer to Ruth's story. I was so convinced that I had found my life's purpose. I lived on the same street as she had, at one point (unknowingly). The story was there. I was literally walking around in it. And yet writing it was harder than I had ever thought it would be.

There have been many obstacles and barriers to writing this novel, some not appropriate to mention in a public forum such as this. Not that I fear any repercussions, you understand, it's just that in writing this novel I've begun to understand how protective people are about their memories, and their versions of the truth. The ironic thing is that I didn't set out to tell the truth, just a story. But somehow my mind got knotted and lost. My imagination got confused about what it was supposed to be doing - telling the truth, or making something up. It abandoned me, fed up with all my empty promises. I think writing a novel based on a true story is so much harder than writing something you completely imagine. You get caught in the crossfire between accuracy and authenticity. 

There were epiphanies though, over the last two years. There were nights where I woke up, reached for a pen and some paper in a half asleep state, and scrawled the title of the novel as it has come to me in a dream, over and over, for fear the pen might have no ink in it. There were photos my father found. There was an LP with Ruth's voice on it, found on some obscure website for £10. 

And still the words would not come.

I told myself that life had got in the way. Love, marathons, travelling, a full time job in publishing, a penchant for the Kings Road on a Sunday. If only I had time and space, and no distractions. If I told myself that often enough, I kind of believed it. 

And, suddenly, it was 2010. The novel had not been touched for many months. 

I read the description for an Arvon course for those with a "work in progress".  Fall in love with your novel again, it promises. That is exactly what I need, I thought. I need to find out what the hell I'm doing with this beast of a story, and whether it wants to be told. I need to find the love that motivated me to tell this story in the first place.

After some deliberation, I booked on the course with money my beloved grandmother left me, hoping she would approve. I toasted to my bravery and hopeful success. As the weeks flew past and the course date drew closer I felt equal amounts of terror and excitement. Somehow I knew this would be crunch time, that whatever was revealed to me I couldn't come back from. 

At 7.55am, on Monday 5 April 2010, the train left Kings Cross station, bound for Inverness. It did not leave from Platform 9 and 3/4, though I hoped that magic was in the air. I was going to need all the help I could get.

To be continued.....

A PS from 2017: the words for this novel now seem to be coming. I knew it would have its time. I wonder if now is it.