Not Writing

Recently, it’s felt like my life isn’t really my own. For various reasons, the usual things that fill up the gaps between work (and are the places where I feel my living really happens) have disappeared. Not to say that it’s all been bad. Much more time with family has made me appreciate them, and time spent looking after myself without piling on expectations can’t be a bad thing. It’s just been rather odd to face the lack of things I consider to be ‘progress.’ No drumming rehearsals have meant I haven’t got any better (and undoubtedly got worse). No French lessons, no running, all the things that I usually count up over the week and use as a measure of success. And worst of all, no writing. In times where I am struggling to hold onto my frail identity as a writer, I often open up a sticky note on my laptop that counts words completed per day. If nothing else, it means I can do a tally at the end of the week, count up the syllables of success. For a month, this has dwindled to zero.

Even these musings are being done on a train, on the way to do something else. When something has been taken away, you realise how much it meant to you. I wrote an article recently for Wander magazine (check it out if you haven’t yet, beautiful and eclectic magazine). In that, I was mostly concerned with origins, perceptions, nationality, all of the things that are commonly associated with your sense of where you fit in the world. What I’m coming to realise is that my sense of self is incredibly closely tied to my actions. Or inactions. I’ve been feeling adrift, lost in a sea of things outside my control, forced to do the bare minimum of things.

It makes me look at what writing actually gives me. Not financial gain, not fame, but perhaps something more important than I’d given it credit. I started my novel when I did a Masters. I was miserable in my job, had always wanted to write a book, and decided that now was as good a time as any. More an exercise in seeing what I could do than anything else, I wasn’t expecting to have the creation of stories become something so integral, so personal. Without losing myself in a sea of words, things feel greyer. Without imagining new people, places, their thoughts, their feelings, searching for ways to express the pictures in my head, I feel a little less. Reduced, as if the mundane acts of feeding and caring for myself are actions to keep me going, not things to keep me alive.

Writing is hard. On days when I’m tired it feels impossible to create anything. Sitting on the bus, I’d much rather read a book, the news, listen to a podcast, passively absorb something someone else created. But it’s dawning on me that the seeming sacrifice is not the hardship I’ve built it up to be. Or rather, denying myself the thing that seems like a massive effort might just be costing me more than I realise.

Sometimes you forget why you started doing something in the first place. It’s so easy for things to become routine. Even those that started out as fun can end up feeling like a chore, just another thing to do on the list, another thing to make you tired. The briefest of breaks can make large the things you found small, lend an importance and urgency to activities you moaned about doing before.

Some people lack the free time for any of the things I enjoy. Responsibilities, ill health, finances, there are innumerable conditions that keep you from your desires.

No matter how tired, I want to remember how privileged I am to have the time and space to do things. And when that time and space is taken from me, to remember to find tiny cracks within which to wedge those things that are precious when lost.

Making Creativity

You can’t make creativity, but you can make cake.

I have two days a week to write. Two glorious, empty, indulgent, frustrating days. Sometimes, the word count is high. My fingers are flying over the keys, I get to the end of it and bask in the glory of my beautiful sentences.

Other times, I write pretty much nothing, then hastily dash out a blog, or do some Tweedecking (like DJing, but way less cool) in a desperate attempt to have something to show for an eight-hour stretch.

The other week, things got even worse thanks to Snotgate, whereupon starting my day, I could barely breathe, had a drumming headache, and the most creative thought in my head was planning the shortest route to the supermarket to stock up on soup/decongestant/something to cheer me up.

I also had a birthday to prepare for. When I was younger, my mum would make the most delicious and elaborate cakes for us. Each year it was based on a different interest or hobby, with everything from a fairytale castle to a ski slope (it had a log cabin made out of chocolate fingers).

Lacking offspring, I’ve decided to carry this tradition on anyway, and set myself the task of creating an otter-themed lemon drizzle cake.

How I grunted and huffed at the thought of completing another chore. It was a rare evening without commitments, an opportunity to put pen to paper, to make up for Monday’s congested failure of a day.

Once I got going, all that fell away. My headache loosened its grip on my temples, the whiny little voice at the back of my head shut up, and I got completely lost in the task at hand.

Whisking, melting the drizzle, spreading the buttercream, missing together the different colours of fondant, rolling it out; basically creating a big lump of sweet food, where before there had just been a muddle of ingredients. Best of all, I fashioned two otters out of fondant. I’m not sure if it counts as a skill (can I put it on my CV?) but I seem to be a dab hand at creating cute animals out of marzipan and sugar paste. We all have our niche.

With my little creation finished off, I steeped myself (and my rattly chest) in a lovely warm bath, reading the National Geographic. Rested and with a real sense of accomplishment, I settled myself into bed.

And then something strange happened. Instead of my usual cataloguing of the day ahead, little nuggets of ideas started to germinate in my relaxed brain. I had to get up, find a pad and paper and scribble them down so they didn’t get washed away by sleep. After that, I was heading into my next writing day with a slew of ideas, notes, first steps, before I’d even begun.

So what made the difference? For one thing, apparently, being tired actually helps to boost creativity . That little filter in your brain that takes out the things you don’t need to worry about right now is switched off, so it allows all the weird and wonderful ideas out from behind your sensible fence.

While I’m sure that’s a factor, I reckon there’s something to be said for the cake (it looked pretty awesome in my opinion – see below). It was a also a physical activity. I was so focused on creating it that it blocked out all negativity. What’s more, it had a tangible outcome. All too often with writing, I might spend hours, days, even years, working on something, and not have anything that you can hold in your hands (and have even more editing to do). With a simple crafted thing (I’m sure it could work for knitting, colouring, sewing, drawing) I had something physical I could look at – a product of my efforts.

So, the next time I’m staring at the screen and the words simply won’t come, I’m going to step away from the desk. Go for a run, draw a picture, make some biscuits, anything that can allow my mind to readjust itself to a physical task with a tangible outcome.

Hopefully, it will relieve stress, boost creativity, and result in a whole lot of writing being done in 2017.

Plus, of course, there’ll also be more cake.

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Books to Build a Person

In the middle bedroom of my mum’s house is a treasure trove. A collection of the books that me and my two sisters read when we were growing up. Oh, the adventures to be found. In one place is What-A-Mess, the Afghan hound who always ended up in a state, despite the purity of his breeding. In another is Mildred Hubble, the Worst Witch, who was perpetually disorganised, had her hair undone, was late for lessons, had her socks round her ankles and never quite got her spells right.

Each time I stay in that middle room, I pull another book out. Perhaps a tale of Narnia, the putting on of rings in an attic that takes the wearers to a strange pool, or a girl who goes to a party and picks all the jelly sweets and cream off the top of a trifle.

Something familiar joins these stories. A girl, who isn’t quite sure of herself. Perhaps it’s her general organisation, or her desire to look outside the limitations of the world around her. A girl who is fascinated by anything and everything, even if she isn’t always organised enough to put the right sock on her feet in the morning.

Yes, that’s me. While I was reading these books, clearly I was finding characters in which I found a mirror of myself. In the mornings, my mum would despair at getting me out of the door on time. At school, my teachers would despair at my lack of pencil, pen, homework, the general paraphernalia that always ended up a bit outside my capabilities. Most of it was because I was too distracted by a book, or the TV, or an idea I had, forever in the muddle of my ideas. These books helped me to identify my place in the world, and to get a sense of worth. Arriety and Mildred always had wonderful adventures.

What it also led me to discover was the power of the books I read when I was young. The top three books were there: Paddington, The Borrowers and Narnia. Not just one book, but anthologies, three collections of books that I read over and over, absorbing myself in the worlds that took my behind the clock with Arriety, into the home of the Browns with Paddington, and into another world with Polly and Digory.

There’s something strange about reading those same words, the ones I turned to so often when I was a child. For starters, it makes me feel bloody old. All too often, I don’t really think as myself as particularly grown up, but there’s nothing like a childhood book to remind you it was over twenty-five years since you last read a book. At the same time, it’s comforting. Snuggling down under a duvet, I can pretend I’m still in that place, sheltered by a secret world, where, at least for that moment, it felt like it only existed for me.

The magic of my childhood resided in books. I was also lucky enough to grow up with books; Steven King making my teenage years even more scary than they were anyway, and the Discworld providing light relief from teenage angst. In fact, I went on to write my dissertation about Terry Pratchett, so his influence stretched beyond spots and hormones.

Now, as a (sort of) adult, I continue to drown myself in words. Sometimes it’s the classics that I really should have read by now, other times it’s new fiction that’s just been released, or just random stuff recommended to me by other people. I find that I look more and more for people different to myself, to allow me to explore through books, rather than find solace in recognising something familiar.

What I’ve also come to realise is that, while my days are often shaped around reading (on the bus, before sleep, a sneaky few chapters over lunch) I have also been shaped by the books I read. My sense of adventure, encouraged by Arriety’s desire to see what was outside the door. My desire to create, boosted by Paddington’s stubborn insistence on getting to the end of whatever he was doing, no matter the outcome. There’s politics and social codes in there too. I’ve seen the world through the eyes of wizards, witches, homosexuals, Islamic fundamentalists, young children, old people, and perhaps most importantly, people from cultures I have never visited. I will never know what it’s like to be a Korean living in the US, or a Nigerian, or a Chinese person in the UK, but all of these voices have been experienced by my little lump of grey matter. Now that’s a powerful thing.

Reading goes far beyond providing a simple way to kill a few hours. It cannot match up to a film or a game, simply because, only in reading, are you active in constructing the meaning, shaping the world in your imagination that the words suggest to you.

That’s why, sorry everyone, I will continue to buy every most people I know a book for Christmas (I do hope you’re enjoying reading them!), because I want them, too, to be able to touch the spine of a treasured item, and recall the times that paper, ink and glue took them to places they never imagined.

Taking Time Out

December is upon us. While apparently the idea that time goes quicker as you get older is a myth (it’s just because you’ve seen more actual time, apparently) it still seems that the years are stacking up at a rate that I can’t quite keep up with. Every hour, day, week, month, I get to the end and sometimes it feels like all I have is a list of things I didn’t manage to do. People I didn’t see, projects I didn’t finish, marking I didn’t do, films I didn’t see, phone calls I didn’t make. It can be more than a little overwhelming.

Last weekend, I made a bold decision. I left the city. Abandoned my beautiful newly-bought flat (6 months and a lot of DIY) and headed out to the wilds of Surrey, to hang out with my Mum and Dad. While it hasn’t exactly ticked off a huge number of things on the List of Doom, it’s certainly offered a nice bit of perspective.

For starters, writing. I’m lucky enough to have two whole days a week that are scheduled for private writing time. While the mornings tend to be pretty productive (2,000 word average, I can live with that) the afternoons end up as so much faffing about. Washing, tidying, then I have guilt that I’m at home but not exercising, so I usually end up in the gym or going for a run. But that ends up being another day that I get to the end of and think – what did I do today?

So I cashed it all in. It was the last weekend before the end of the year that I actually had nothing on (sorry, Batala) and I decided to have a self-enforced writing retreat. The results? It’s bloody lovely.

While I can’t claim to have done no house-related things at all (I’m pretty sure cooking dinner is in order considering I’m getting free room and board) there was that wonderful freedom of not actually being able to do anything. Sure, I should probably have put another coat of paint on the wardrobes, or put a wash on, but I physically couldn’t. Funnily enough, my afternoons ended up far more productive than my mornings.

There were little annoying things I’d been meaning to do for ages, like making a spreadsheet of literary magazines to send out to (yes, the creative and the nerd go surprisingly well together) as well as catching up on my social media stuff. The word count was pretty good. I managed 10,000 words in 3 days, which is certainly an improvement, and I also found myself having random ideas for new stories, which is something that rarely happens to me.

But you know what, there was something else. Over and above the loveliness of simply being able to wander upstairs and write whenever I liked, there was something I don’t give myself nearly enough of. Time. I am a terrible ‘should’ person. Constantly barraging myself with guilt about something that didn’t get done, or something that seemed like a ‘waste’ of time. It’s the times that you stop, do nothing, that you remember what makes you smile. On Sunday afternoon, me and Mum sang ‘Climb Every Mountain’ while doing a few bits in the kitchen. I grew up with that musical, with singing. It’s something I almost never do anymore.

But I digress. The thing that I really discovered last weekend? The power of time. That when you take yourself away from the treadmill of your life, you feel more relaxed, more calm, more productive, more creative, than you ever thought possible. I’m not a massive fan of resolutions, as they always seem to imply goals and charts and yet another way of disappointing my own expectations, but if there’s one thing I want to give myself next year, it’s the space to feel like this in my own home.

Thanks, Mum. xx

Lessons from YA Books

Having read several dystopian novels lately (see my thoughts here) I decided to try a YA version, to see how they compared. I was pleasantly surprised. While I’m incredibly wary of genre-specific snobbery, I confess I am subject to a bit of it when it comes to the YA genre. The books that I’ve read tend to be trite, or the emotions overstated, or clichéd, or they simply dealt with an area of human experience that had lost resonance for me. In the case of The Giver, I not only found a genuinely good book, I also thought that the ‘adult’ sphere of novels could learn a few lessons from it.

A great story doesn’t have to be complicated. 

We are in a perfect world. There is no pain, no hunger, no loss, no poverty. But, of course, this comes at a price. In order to live in a society this controlled, feelings must be suppressed. The question the book asks is quite simple – is a world without sorrow, hate or pain worth it, when there is no joy or love?

We follow Jonas, a young boy who meets The Giver, a man who holds the collective memories of humanity. As The Receiver, Jonas must start to take on the memories himself. As a result, he starts to discover a hidden past, along with profound feelings that leave him confused. He comes to realise the flaws in the perfect world around him, and starts to question the nature of the world around him.

But all of this is told in a very simplistic way. We don’t enter into huge philosophical debates, there is no fluffy description or hyperbolising. Often, the most simply stated things are the most moving.

Being simple doesn’t mean you can’t be complex.

Just because the plot and the language seem straightforward, doesn’t mean the questions and metaphors they’re throwing up are basic. The whole world could be a metaphor for censorship or control, and the effects it has on people. By taking things that people assume are ‘perfect’ to the extreme, you could question the very nature of happiness and perfection, and that part of the beauty of humanity is the struggle, the contrast between highs and lows. The ending could be hugely optimistic or depressingly cynical, depending on how you choose to read it. In fact, it is because things are not overtly spelled out, that the book can be open to a myriad of interpretations.

Never underestimate a decent plot. 

People that tell stories well are often undervalued. The great Stephen King, rarely given much credence in terms of ‘literature,’ is masterful at weaving together stories and keeping them pacy and engaging. This, as I’m discovering, is one of the most difficult elements of writing. Take me into another world, make me see it and feel it, use language to make it sound nice – these things are fairly accessible to all writers.

But immerse me in a story, convince me to follow a character through twists and turns, make me unable to tear my eyes away from a page – this has somehow been deemed a lesser skill. Not that I’m advocating reading Dan Brown, but it’s worth remembering that a good plot with tension dropped in at pertinent points is harder than it seems.

Children aren’t stupid.

I think one of the objections people have to reading from the perspectives of children is because they find them a little, well, childish. In fact, the best authors of this genre don’t underestimate the interpretive powers of their young protagonists. One of the criticisms against The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (although I love that book) is that Bruno comes across as just a little too clueless. In this book, Jonas can comprehend the magnitude of what he is seeing, the power he holds, the difference it makes in the world. The way he sees his parents change, and he is forced into an uncomfortable decision. Child narrators allow a writer to pare things down, but also allow for a much richer level of discovery and development.

Novels like The Giver remind us that stories can be simple, written for children, and still beautiful and resonant for readers of all ages.

The Fragrance of Blood

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She lets the sun touch her through the window. Dips her head, past the dark line drawn on the table, sits her face into the sharp heat. Magnified warmth. It could be Ghana outside – thick orange dust, women piling yellow fruits. Amplify the squawk of a hedge-bird, it could be a gull – clawing its way into the sky, scissored feathers in glossy blue. She squints at the shaking strands of light shredded through the Volvic water bottle – a reflection of a swaggering pool, a shard of light cut from the shifting sea.

The minute hand of the clock stabs. They’ll be back soon. She pulls her face back into the shade, reconciles her eyes to the brown lines of houses across the road, next door’s terracotta fence too orange, like a beach with a fake tan. Crushing the waxy wrappings, she cups her hand and drags it over the wooden surface, scraping her skin white to make sure all traces are gone.  She picks up a bit of gristle and grinds it between her teeth.

The evidence goes in a sealed freezer bag, the air hushed out, then the rigmarole with the chair so she can reach all the way to the back of the airing cupboard, nestled with the others between the folds of the ruched curtains they took down last summer. Two slices of ham and a sealed pack of pastrami for next week.

It might start to smell. A quick squirt of Berry and Shimmering Mist, thorough hand wash, everything is hidden. She slips back the lid of the piano and smears some fingerprints on it, puts some pans on the hob and a willing carrot on the chopping board. The last moment before the clatter arrives at the door, she lifts one hand into the beam of evening light, dancing the warmth in her fingers.

Once they’re here, she changes. Three other bodies, shifting around hers, demanding, placating, the, ‘yes-but-I-didn’t-mean-it,’ and, ‘what-are-you-telling-me-for,’ dips up and down like a chorus, a tape-loop of grievances and defences, repetition smoothing them to melody. Her movements are easier, guided by expectations, pinned by these male eyes. Once separated from her body, they lifted and turned against her.

When they are almost at the table He will arrive, then is the ritual of the eating and the asking. The Requests, now the wallet is near, before they disperse into corners, leaving her to cleanse the portions of the house they have touched, to make it ready for their onslaught again.

Something sticks. Before the clatter of his key, a jump in the rhythm, a caught needle. It’s like a lump, a hard thing, too early in the month for that, and too high up, but a similar clenching around a hard mass, something she swallowed perhaps. The boys gape at her, this unexpected stillness. One finger under a rib – poke, rub, it will go soon.

It resumes, their dance exhaling back into what it was. Lentil bake today, followed by yoghurt and raspberry compote.  He arrives; ‘oh-what-did-you-get-for-homework,’ and, ‘you-won’t-get-better-unless-you-practise,’ until they scatter.

The obstruction persists, an accusation under her skin as she smooths on the thick blubber of face cream and reads five pages before sleep.

Mince sits in sops of it, gleaming on the edge of chops, the steak carved out from the redness itself. Blood smells more fragrant than Purple Lavender Meadow. Last time it was just a pork pie, a pink hunk hidden inside a clump of pastry. It could have been cheese, vegetable. Easy to hide. Before that a sausage roll, a turkey stick. All so hard and cold. She wants something with juice today, for it to leak between her lips as she eats it. Cooking is too risky, they might smell it.

Impaled chickens rotate in an oven, brown fat glistening on their hides. The largest one is sealed in a foil bag, pressed into her hands. So warm. She double bags it, shoves it in her large handbag, escapes into the street, planning her route.

“Lina!” Joanne, who runs the knitting and mindfulness class on Tuesdays, lumped across the whole pavement. A whisper of escape to her left, but now she’s hesitated too long.

“Didn’t think you’d be going in there.” Joanne nods through the glass, lumps of squashed red things delicate in their displays. “Although knowing you, more guests for dinner, yes?” Joanne leans in, her nose edging towards the bag. A silver chain drops out from under her chin, a drop of blue at the end, darkening to purple under the bloody awning of the butcher’s. So pretty. Just like the thing she lost.

Another dance will begin – the swaying of compliments, a dangled invitation to be snatched at or dodged. The heat is leaching from the bag, each minute solidifying the glorious fat.

“Sorry, got to get back, the boys.” It’s an easy excuse.

There’s a poke, lower down this time, shifted over to the left. Like it’s working down through her, dragging something with it. She walks past Joanne, a wince in her step as it nags at her all the way to the car, round the ring road and out to the industrial estate. She sits on a wall and buries her face in the grease of the chicken, sucking the meat from the white rounds of gristle and spitting them on the floor among the dandelions.

The thing she lost, was tricked into giving away. It had been a gift, from Aunty Fran, the cold chain dropped into her palm without a box, so Mum wouldn’t see. An upside-down V curved in gold, for wishes. She secreted it under her school shirt, sweated in a vest so it stuck to her skin. Mum worried the mark it left with a sponge in the bath. Before sleep, she slid her middle finger along the curve of it, soothed by the up and down, her hands aching from all the piano scales. A smile was given, if she completed the hours, ticked off the things on her list.

On Sundays they trooped to church. The new man came for a one-off guest appearance, highlighted on the leaflet like a headline act. He walked among them, gesticulated, had the first button of his shirt undone and a scruff of beard. You should give something precious, he said, to show your love. There was a bin bag, he rattled it, already full with his things. Stuff, he said, it isn’t important. A sniff of something as he walked past. Perhaps he had a bacon sandwich for breakfast, while they ground down cereals like cattle, spooned quivering egg folds onto toast.

She reached behind her neck, hid the strand in her hand, put the scratchy gloves on top, as if that were her gift. Her hands splayed flat, so he could see the flash of it as it fell into the bag. It had seemed obvious then, her way to an unspoken salvation. If not, she’d find a way to retrieve it, later. After the droning of the last hymn he led them out, breath claggy in the cold, out over the graveyard, to the river. She teetered at the back, craning her feet in the stiff shoes, enough to catch the carelessness of his hand as he flung the bag over the edge. Her wishes, submerged in scudding water.

There’s a spot of grease on her chest, bits of skin in her hair. She’s gasping, as full of breath as when the babies squeezed out. Different though, to be filled. A lemon wet wipe takes care of the worst of it. In the rearview mirror she finds a speck of rubbery pink on her chest. Where the wishbone used to sit.

No sun today. It could be Estonia – sharp spires, the rain a shivering waterfall, frothing mist in a green valley. Leek and mushroom pasta.

It digs in her stomach, this hard thing. Worse tonight. It must be the size of the large dollops of creme fraiche she spoons in. A little lower again, in the middle, where she got the first jabbing sensation. You’re a woman now, Mum said, cleaning her up and pressing flower-crusted pads into her hand. It felt like being emptied out.

Plates on the table, it resumes around her, the ‘but-it-isn’t-fair’ and ‘I-expect-better-from-you.’ After the first gift in the bag, it continued. Things to be bestowed on others. Your appreciation, your virginity, your grades, your debts from University, your hope of being an architect, travelling, your hand in marriage.

The clatter has stopped. She scans the faces, reflections of herself, cut into more angular shapes. They look confused. She feels something wet in her hand. A loop of spaghetti, draped around her neck, her middle finger sliding over it. Quite cold now, it must have been there a while. She slops it onto the plate, moves too early into the after-eating tempo, ignoring the resistant hands as she takes plates still strewn with food. Wincing over the bubbles, it feels like it’s growing.

On Wednesday the school calls. She was stooping her back in the sun, Guyana outside the window. Now there will be traffic and snivelling, vomit and soothing hands required. She takes the big handbag again, decides to pop in on the way, maybe something to have in the cupboard, to waft her nose over when it gets a bit much.

The lamb chops cling to the severed bone. On special offer. Thick steaks, seeping redness onto their little plastic tray. She asks for two, three, four. A squashy parcel of waxed paper, placed at the bottom of the bag.

The school is two roads down on the left. Outside, a necklace of yellow V shapes mark the boundary of it on the tarmac. She traces the inverse shape on her collarbone. Drowned, in such a beautiful stream. Her foot reaches for the pedal.

The ring road is quiet at this time of day. On the motorway, it’s surprising how quickly the miles are eaten up. At twenty, she throws the mobile phone out the window. At thirty, the keys to the house. Forty brings the remembrance of the thick packet of waxed paper. She pulls it out, opens it in her lap. With one hand steering, the other frees the hunks of meat. It wafts up to her – a metal tint of rotten fruit. Impossible to wait. She rips at the corner of one with her teeth, juice spilling down her chin. The hard knot dissipates, wetness between her legs. At fifty she’s onto the second fillet, cheeks red in the bleeding sky.

Be Bold

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Summarising a DeLillo novel is always a tricky task. Well, it’s about football, but also about nuclear war, but then it’s about power and masculinity, about language and the way we use it and are used by it. That’s summary of End Zone. Technically, it’s a novel about a kid called Gary Harkness who goes to play football on a college scholarship in Texas. Along the way, he meets a girl he likes, spends some time with football players (not sure they could be called friends) and gets a bit obsessed with the possible outcomes of a nuclear attack.

Considering the fact that it was written in the seventies, Gary’s creepy insistence on finding out the exact effects, death toll and long-term impact has clear links to the paranoid population during the Cold War. In the novel, it’s the stark way these things are reported that makes it seem unusual. Detached, inhuman; “First to sixth hour after detonation the ground-zero circle is drenched with fallout. By the end of the first day the dose-rate begins to slow down…It all depends on the megatons.” DeLillo is reducing humanitarian crises into a series of bare facts. The result is surprisingly amusing, perhaps because it is so absurd.

In the same way, he deconstructs football into a series of inane sayings, pep talks and sheer blunt-headed violence. “Gary, on the thirty-two I want you to catapult out of there. I want you to really come. I want to see you zoom into the secondary.” Even if you knew what they were talking about (and I don’t), as the novel progresses it all blurs into nonsense. The training on the field bleeds through into their social time, the classes they take and their friendships, until the entire scope of human interaction feels like it’s been pared down into a series of fixed responses. Take it at face value and it’s a way of looking at how ridiculous masculine culture around sport is. Dig a little deeper, and perhaps he’s pulling apart the very basis for most of our interactions and urges – driven by consumerism, charged with greed and the struggle for power.

The characters speak in jargon. They speak in phrases that sound like they have been cobbled directly from textbooks, stories or news bulletins. They also largely speak around each other, rarely interacting. Again, this is funnier that it sounds. With the characters talking at odds, or obsessively circling around a fixed topic, the reader is given a rare treat – hovering over the characters, peering into their weird little world and marvelling at it.

Initially, DeLillo had a small but loyal following. Once novels like White Noise came along, he went from cult writer to critically acclaimed author. In this, his second novel, there’s something really beautiful about the way it feels choppy, intense, perhaps less considered than his later novels. It’s also impressive to see how early on his distinctive voice and sarcasm sears through his writing.

From a writer’s perspective, I think DeLillo is a lesson in staying true to yourself. No matter how ridiculous his prose might seem to some, it’s a distinctive style that captures an essence of communication, rather than attempting to create true speech. Who could do that anyway? What we experience as dialogue in fiction is always a pared down version, a crafted method of storytelling. DeLillo invites us to be a little more bold with our words, and not accept those that have come before as our models.

On Finishing a First Draft

It is done. I have typed the last word, finished the last scene, put my (relatively) new characters to bed. In celebration of this, I wanted to share some piece that I figured someone would have written about how great it was to have accomplished this. Alas, I was wrong. All of the posts I found revolved around what comes next. Where to go next, how to edit, all of that stuff that I was really hoping not to think about for a few weeks. I can understand the need to focus on improvement, but there should be something about the simple achievement of getting this far. So I thought I’d write one myself.

It’s the second novel I’ve written. A bit weird, compared to the first. While writing the first one, I had scheduled meetings with my tutor, a deadline for a certain number of words, I had to hand in the plot structure and have it assessed, all of that stuff. I wrote it on a Masters course at City University. Which was amazing. It gave me the structure and guidance I needed to make it through writing my first novel. It also allowed me to get over a lot of the pitfalls that I feel I would have had if I’d just gone ahead and written one. Especially seeing as, for the first one, I wrote a dual narrative. Who thought that was a good idea for a first novel?! Juggling two plots and voices, as well as tinkering between the two to create an interwoven narrative was not an easy task. This one, by comparison, is a more straightforward first-person story, which has been a little easier. It’s also been quite freeing. Away from the need to have anyone peruse my work, I’ve allowed myself to go wherever I wanted to with it. Like my imagination’s been let out for once.

And, you know what, other writers, it is easier. Every time we had a visiting author, we asked that hopeful question – does it get easier? Of course we did, we were all at the point where we thought every sentence we wrote was utter garbage and clearly we were never going to finish anything decent anyway. Every time, without fail, they all said that, no, of course not, writing a book was always hard. Needless to say, this did little to boost our morale.

I beg to differ. Of course I’ve only written a first draft, and it’s going to be a hell of a lot of work, but it is still easier. If nothing else, having got to the end of an enormous piece of writing once, at least I know I can actually do it. That in itself makes the process less arduous. Not only that, you’ve already tripped yourself up over your own mistakes and failures for nigh on two (creeping towards three) years. So of course it’s not as hard. Perhaps as you write more it’s easy to forget that first one, the one that got you out of the blocks. Or maybe when you get so absorbed in your new project and it’s hard going it fools you into thinking that you are going through the same process again. Of course you are, to a certain extent, but experience changes you, and pretending otherwise just makes you sound pretentious.

What also doesn’t help, is all of the, ‘oh so-and-so wrote a book in three months/two weeks/a minute,’ talk. Of course, it makes for a more exciting, press release, but it’s also bollocks. What they mean is, they finished the first draft in a ridiculously short amount of time. After that, it would have gone through a huge number of edits, rewriting, proof reading, making the magical process not quite as magical, but a little more achievable for us mere mortals. Also, most people have to do other jobs, which makes it take a little longer! So yes, it took me 9 months. I still think that’s not bad.

But here I am, veering off the point. what I wanted to say is – it feels great. Under my own steam, with very little feedback, I have finished a story that I first had the idea for about a year ago. I researched it, I talked through my ideas with people, created a story, characters who I now feel are real people, and I got to the end. It’s not nearly often enough that we are told to just sit back and give ourselves a little pat on the back for a job well done. So the same goes for you too. Nice one, whatever it is you’re feeling proud of today.

In a world where we constantly seek for the next ‘target’ or ‘goal,’ let’s sit back and just enjoy the pleasure of having achieved something. Doesn’t that feel good?

After Me Comes the Flood

Last month, I went to the Emerald Street Literary Festival. Filled with intelligence, literature and inspiring ideas, it was a fantastic day out. And, best of all, it had a bookshop. In the end, me and my friend decided to buy three books each, that way we were effectively getting double for our money, as we could swap as soon as we’d finished. Nothing better than the feel of a weight of new books in your hand. The first I read was a debut novel by Sarah Perry, After Me Comes the Flood.

In the middle of a heatwave, John Cole decides to get away from the heat of the city and visit his brother. On the way, he has car trouble and find himself at a strange house, where the residents seem not only to know him, but to have been expecting him. We follow his tentative steps to discover the true nature of the people around him, without revealing his true identity, and explore the eerie world the house has brought him to.

This is an intense novel. It could’t be any longer than it is (230 pages), if only for the suffocating atmosphere that imbues it from the very beginning. Her prose is also thick and dense, which helps to create the overall atmosphere of a stifling summer.

The setting is almost other-worldly. While no specific time reference is given, we could be in Victorian times once we arrive at the strange old house. With a piano, peeling paper and artefacts scattered around, the place seems completely isolated from the outside world. The threads of the truth begin to slowly untangle, and we are led, bit by bit, into the strange world the residents inhabit.

Elijah is a priest who has lost his faith, Claire is a childlike woman, Alex, her brother, is a fragile young man and Walker seems separate from the rest, while Eve is an entrancing pianist. Presiding over them all is Hester, a forceful matriarch who steers the course of all of those in the house as though they were her children. Perry creates a highly atmospheric interior, with lots of references to colour and shade, along with religious imagery. This heightens the importance of the house, and gives it a refuge-like quality, as if the people inside are choosing to cocoon themselves within.

Of course, if you spend a large part of a novel building up to a mystery, there needs to be a decent payoff that is equal to the level of suspense that has been created. I think, in this case, the novel was a little lacking. The reasons behind the people and their pasts seemed a little neat, perhaps obvious, and I would have liked to have seen something a bit more complex or shocking to counteract the tension that was built up earlier in the novel.

Having said that, the level of intrigue is not what the novel hinges on. The blurb is a bit of a mis-sell, as it implies that we are almost in thriller territory. A decision by the publishers to make the book appealing, no doubt, but that perhaps makes the content not live up to the promises made on the back of the book. What you are getting is something quite different. A dark, elusive book that takes time to linger on details in beautiful prose and to explore the fragmented reality we all inhabit, and how we might end up clinging to the most unlikely of people or situations, in order to feel at peace.

Sarah Perry has produced a notable first book, the tone and character of it lingered long after I read it. Not enthused perhaps, but certainly haunted.

The Versions of Us

A very interesting concept – three possible outcomes for the same couple. We’ve all questioned the ‘what ifs’ in our lives, so this novel has a go at unpicking the actual outcomes of decisions made over the span of an entire lifetime. What keeps you flicking the pages in this book (and I did read it very quickly) is the short chapters and the unusual concept. I would have liked for it to be executed with a little more finesse.

Eva and Jim meet at a chance encounter while at University. But while the first time they see each other doesn’t change, the way their lives play out following that moment is explored in three alternatives. In one, they stay together, in the second, they keep missing each other, while in the third, things go rather disastrously wrong, at least at first. We follow both of them from their twenties through to their seventies, from London to New York to Paris, and untangle the confusions and delights of two lives, lived to the full, and the effect that certain decisions have on them and those close to them. It’s a clever premise, and it’s certainly engaging to be taken to many different locations, intimately described, and to have the opportunity of seeing the parallel universes of two people and the way they shift and fluctuate towards and away from each other.

I saw Laura Barnett at a reading of her next book, Greatest Hits, which also sounds interesting. In her new novel, she explores the idea of a life lived through one day, and the memories and ideas that this day throws up allows the reader to see their whole life. In the interview, Laura said she didn’t have a carefully mapped out plot for The Versions of Us with lots of post-it notes or charts, that it was all in her head. I would say that this is perhaps clear from the reading of it. While the stories were certainly interesting, I wasn’t particularly compelled or surprised by what happened in each of the threads, and the different plot points didn’t necessarily drive the novel forward. What does, of course, is the varying relationship between the two central characters, and the way the outcomes are different. It also perhaps explained the missed facts and time inconsistencies that were littered throughout. The method of narrative is a clever device, and it is a clever book, but I was disappointed that more wasn’t made of the interweaving, as it could have allowed for some really unusual storytelling.

The other issue is, in itself, the threading together of three narratives. Because the chapters are so sparse, I found myself losing track of which daughter or son was which, the main problem being that I no longer cared as much what happened to them. This was especially the case with the ‘extra’ characters, that really didn’t get fleshed out enough to make it off the page. It is certainly a difficult thing to do, threading all of these narratives together, but I wonder if giving us longer chapters as the book progressed would have allowed us to be better immersed into each specific world, as I found myself flitting through the book, not very invested. The other problem that this multiple narrative throws up is the need to ‘tell’ so much. With gaps of months or even years between each episode, we find the character quite awkwardly reflecting on something that doesn’t always seem natural, simply because the reader needs to be filled in on what has come before. I can understand that this was a difficulty in leaving gaps, but perhaps it would have been nice to tackle them in slightly different ways each time, to avoid the ‘she/he remembered…’ feel that gets a bit repetitive. It also meant that feelings were often reported rather than experienced, which again left me feeling emotionally distant from the character’s journey. Perhaps two threads might have meant that the stories could be more intimate and fully developed, rather than spread so thinly between three.

Her prose is flowing and smooth, with the occasional touch of beautiful phrase. This gives it a nice pace, so that in between your brain catching up with who is who and what was happening last time you saw them, there are elegant descriptions that I found delightful. In fact, the nuance of language just edges it out of being a beach read, as it doesn’t (always) fall for easy clichés and offers a far more subtle exploration of relationships (in all their forms) than you would expect from a different kind of book.

To be clear, this is a very engaging and interesting novel, and I did really like the interplay between the character’s lives. It’s an interesting concept, as we so often cite ‘timing’ as such an important factor in relationships, that to see the actual result of three different timings between the same two people is a very interesting exercise. I just would have liked to be more emotionally engaged with the story.