Monday, May 25, 2015

Places of the mind

David Nicholls writes in the Guardian on the subject of a sense of place in novels. It is of course one of the pleasures, indeed joys, of novels: the creation of a sense of place in which the reader can be immersed - can, in his or her mind's eye, look around and walk with the characters: it's one of the ways in which we can identify with the characters and events of a novel, and in which the characters and events can be made to seem real.

But what do we mean by reality when we are talking about fiction? Nicholls concedes that there are novelists who create a sense of a real place for the reader simply by making places up: writers of fantasy or futuristic fiction, and of historical novels: 'A notepad and camera won't help much if you're trying to conjure up Wolf Hall'. However, he is taxed by the issue of including current real-life places in one's fiction: what if you get the detail wrong? Well, he doesn't exactly spell this out but it can be disaster: if the reader knows more about the place than you do, then the fictional world of the novel, ie the fictional reality, is broken, intruded upon by common-or-garden real-life reality, and you've lost the reader. It's a worry all fiction-writers share when setting events in real-life places they don't know, or don't know intimately. Nicholls reports that he's physically travelled to avoid this problem and more recently has used Google Street View. I've done both of these things, too, but it makes me queasy: I always have the sense that I'm somehow missing the point; it's not only that, as Nicholls admits, one gets a very superficial view of a place this way, but more importantly that there is something wrong, or at least dangerous or diminishing, in so consciously injecting undigested geographic or topographic fact into one's long-digested fictional landscape.

For what is fiction but itself a place of the mind? Fiction isn't a place you go chiefly to find facts; fiction's truth is chiefly emotional, psychological and moral. Yet, in our 'reality'-obsessed culture there does indeed seem to be a tendency to read fiction as fact - witness the rise in confessedly autobiographical novels and the recent, if fading, supremacy of biography over fiction, not to mention the insistence on author profiles and the need to sell a novel on an author's life story - and there does indeed seem to be a current cultural obsession with real-life places in literature. One member of my reading group, who, I think, is pretty representative of many readers who are not particularly literary, especially loves novels about places she knows, and I detect a trend amongst writers towards satisfying this desire for recognition by injecting real-life topographical detail and place-name-checks.

But what about those readers who don't know the place - the street or the cafe - you're name-checking? No same sense of real-life recognition for them. My fellow reading-group member replies that it doesn't matter, it's simply a different experience for the reader who doesn't know the place, but the danger is that that experience will be one of exclusion. As an untravelled working-class teenager reading novels with unexplained or glancing references to upper- or middle-class rituals and foreign locations, I had a sense of exclusion, a sense that others, able to envisage the manners and places and know they were right, were getting more out of the fiction than I was. I could imagine the places but I had a deep sense of not being necessarily right in my imagining; I could look them up in the library, but I hadn't had that recreation of one's own experience that others, reading the same novel, could have.

It's the author's job to create a world with which as many readers as possible will identify, which means either properly recreating a place (which as Nicholls says can be done with a few swift strokes, but needs to be more than just name-checking it) or  fictionalising it, which last, as he says, Hardy did so well in the highly fictionalised area he called Wessex. If we don't do this, fiction becomes parochial, fails its potential for universality. And once we do succeed in doing this, though we may wish for various reasons to name a place in a fiction, it is possible not even to do so: if we are writing about a real place, those who know it will not need it named - maybe, as I have discovered with one of my own stories*, they won't even notice it's not named - and those who don't won't be disrupted by that sense of exclusion. If we are fictionalising places - that is, bending the mere facts about them - real-life names, as Nicholls indicates in his discussion of Hardy, become an impediment.

Furthermore, the so-called reality of real-life places is never that certain. My London is not necessarily your London; his village in Dorset is not her village on the very same spot on the real-life map. One's sense of real-life places is individual, imbued with one's own personal experiences and personality, often at one very particular time. If a reader brings to a novel an association with a place that is inappropriate for the novel's atmosphere or theme, then once again you are stymied: so once again, name-checking is not enough; the author must override that association with his or her own mental landscape of the place.

Not so long ago, for a short story I was writing*, I did exactly what Nicholls says he did for his first novel, One Day: I revisited a place I had once lived, in order to write about an experience I had had there. The first shock was that the place had been completely erased, all the old buildings replaced by new ones or empty parkland spaces, and the whole topography erased and realigned in such a way that I didn't even realise at first that it was the place, and when I did felt completely disorientated. This was the place (that's a quote from the story), and yet it wasn't: the real place, the place with meaning for me, and which I wanted to convey in my story, existed only in my memory. My memory would have to be enough. Yet the new space, quotidian and alien, somehow shattered and displaced my very evocative memory. In a desperate bid to hang on to it, I went to a nearby suburb that I had also known well, and which I found unchanged. But here was the second shock: this place, though clearly unchanged, was not how I remembered it, and once again I found my sense of it all threatened. The place I wanted to explore and portray was after all a place of the mind. So the story came to be about precisely that: a protagonist walking with a map that fails to conform either to her memory or, it appears, to the present topography, towards this realisation: that places can only ever, in the ultimate analysis, be places of the mind.

And this is the power of fiction: its universality lies precisely in its capacity to give us landscapes of the mind.

*The first of my own stories referred to here is 'Tides, or How Stories Do or Don't Get Told', first published in The View From Here and reprinted in Best British British Short Stories 2014 (Salt), ed. Nicholas Royle.
The second is 'Looking for the Castle', to be published on 20th June in Unthology 7 (Unthank), ed. Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones. (Pre-order here.)
Both stories will be included in my new collection, Used to Be, to be published in September by Salt.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Edge Hill Prize shortlist 2015

It's that time of year again: the shortlist for the Edge Hill Prize for a short-story collection has been announced, and I didn't even get around to commenting on the long list.

As usual, the long list is dominated by independent publishers, with 9 of the 26 titles coming from Celtic publishers - no less than 5 of those from Ireland - and the established London houses fielding a mere 4 between them. Two books from big publishers, however, make it to the shortlist of 6, along with one from Scotland (Freight), one from Ireland (Doire), and one each from independents Seagull and Salt, based in Kolkata and Norfolk respectively:

Waiting for the Bullet, Madeleine D'Arcy (Doire)
The Redemption of Galen Pike, Carys Davies (Salt)
Infidelities, Kirsty Gunn (Faber)
Life-Like, Toby Litt (Seagull)
Any Other Mouth, Annaliese Mackintosh (Freight)
The American Lover, Rose Tremain (Chatto and Windus)

I've never thought to wonder previously about gender representation on previous shortlists and long lists for this prize, but as one of my Facebook commenters pointed out, this shortlist includes only one man, reflecting perhaps the fact that the long list is weighted towards female authorship, which possibly indicates that women currently dominate the short-story scene.

Heavyweights Hilary Mantel and A L Kennedy miss out, which is interesting: personally, I liked Mantel's book, although as critics pointed out, it did have the air of stories written over a long period and thus lacked the cohesiveness that this prize is specifically looking for in a collection. Cohesiveness certainly characterises all of the books on the shortlist. Annaliese Mackintosh's confessedly autobiographical and amazingly energetic collection obsessively circles the same moments and operates more as a short-story cycle; Toby Litt experiments cleverly throughout his collection with different forms, but overall it is a kind of jazz riff featuring connected characters. Kirsty Gunn's beautifully written stories are tightly bound by voice, theme and sensibility, as are Madeleine D'Arcy's and those of Carys Davies whose collection has the mythic quality she has made all her own. And while the stories in Rose Tremain's collection are strikingly varied in subject matter, and sometimes voice, a sense of her steady authorial sensibility makes these a strength.

I can't imagine who is going to win...

Monday, May 18, 2015

The conditions needed for writing

I can't write at the moment, and here's why. The room in which I like to write is an attic room, under the sloping ceiling with no space between me and the actual roof. As I work I can hear the pigeons trotting across the slates just above me, and their cooing is a soothing background soundtrack. I feel so at peace there, so removed from the hum-drum world down below and free to sink into other worlds. I know it's a cliche, the writer in the garrett, and it's often presented as a writer's hardship (having to live in a garret, which is traditionally associated with poverty), but our garret is an extra, and I know I'm lucky to be able to work there. However, since it's directly under the roof it's been vulnerable to leaks, and I have often also sat writing with water dripping - and more recently pouring - into a bucket. So now the roof is being mended, the view from the window is blocked by scaffolding, my partner John is working on the window frame, since it went rotten while we didn't consider it worth decorating up there, and everything's covered with drapes. I feel bereft: I had to abandon the desk hastily, because the roofers began earlier than I had expected, and it's a struggle to get back up there to get things I need for writing but had forgotten, as, on the stairway just outside, the old skylight is being replaced and the stairwell is blocked with tarpaulins. And anyway I can't write.

I don't think it's just the sound of hammering above, and battens being thrown down all around; it's also to do with my displacement from my nook. I've puzzled about why, since I've written in so many other places: I've lived in so many other places, for a start, and I've written in basements and shared bedrooms; I've written in other places in this house, on the table I'm sitting at now in our living room, and on the landing, even, with all the doors shut, when I've needed insulation from the sound of other people's roofs and building work being done. I've often written very successfully while travelling alone on trains, usually with the excitement of a brand-new idea, and I think that's a clue, travelling alone being not only stimulation but a kind of mental insulation: a removal from the day-to-day, and a throwing back of oneself onto one's own resources and insights. It's a question, in the main, I've found, of carving out a kind of physical-mental space, a corner of the room, say, where these particular thoughts and inspirations happen. So why can't I do it now? After all, the roofers aren't here at weekends, or when it's raining, as it is at this very moment, and anyway I could take my writing pad and laptop off to a quiet cafe and work there.

I think it's to do with the particular work I want to tackle next, and it makes me realise something about the process of writing, at least as it works for me, as well as having implications, I think, for the kind of fiction our distracting culture makes difficult. What I want to tackle next is a story of very deep emotional turmoil and betrayal, and I know I can't do it - not properly, not with justice - unless I feel utterly calm and sorted and on top of everything. I know that, if I'm not, the story could overwhelm me, and I could fail to achieve a light enough touch for the story not to be overwhelming for the reader. I'm too locked on to it now to turn in the meantime to anything less complex or shorter, but I can't start it in odd moments of peace, as I know it's going to need an immersive and uninterrupted effort.

Seems to me, then, you need to be untroubled to write tragedy well, and you need peace to write of turmoil - not to mention the private income or decent remuneration that can provide them.

Crossposted to my author blog.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Guest post: Penelope Farmer on ageism in traditional publishing and the e-publishing answer

Penelope Farmer is the author of numerous books for children and adults, including the classic and loved children's novel Charlotte Sometimes, so famous and loved that it was turned into a hit song by the pop group The Cure. One might have assumed that someone with such a track record would never end up without a publisher, yet this is the situation in which Penelope found herself, much to the frustration of her agent who had a new novel by Penelope that she loved and was dying to sell. Here Penelope talks about the present-day forces that led to such a situation, and the solution that her agent found in helping to bring her sweeping new novel, Goodnight Ophelia, to public attention. The thoughts and memories of a woman dying from a disease that could have been prevented had she known her true parentage, it's both a fascinating study of a complex character and an impressive survey of the history of a whole generation brought up with the unacknowledged tragic effects of war. And in spite of its subject matter, it's sprightly and uplifting - in a way that the marketing folk of traditional publishing were apparently unable to see.

Old writers may not die; they may even keep on writing. What they don’t get is published any more unless their names come with big sales figures attached. 

This old writer – me – has published more than thirty books over the years, for adults and children, most of them commissioned. One – Charlotte Sometimes – has been in print since it was published in 1969, helped by being turned into a song by the Cure: an accolade that led around 1996, to my standing in Earls Court Arena waving back at a vast audience of cheering Cure fans. Maybe I should have foreseen that this would be my high spot as writer, before the downhill slide caused by the ditching of the Net Book Agreement. Everyone said its demise would do for mid-list writers like me. And they were right. 

I compounded the problem, of course, by never writing the same book twice. I can’t blame either publishers or readers for liking familiarity; I gulp up successive books about the same detectives myself.  But that’s boring for the writer – me. I compounded problems still further by failing even to produce a novel after 1993. My life having fallen apart, I assembled three autobiographical anthologies instead, all published, but hardly best sellers, and then, as foolishly, turned down a commission to write another children’s book, opting instead to produce a book about several weeks spent as a writer in residence at a hostel for people with mental problems. The ruling on this book by the marketing men - against the wishes of an eager would-be editor  – was ‘who wants to read about the nitty-gritty of mental illness’: this my first encounter with the very different publishing world from the one I’d hitherto enjoyed of being nurtured by fond editors; a world in which sales and marketing rules.

I think I realised that publishing the new novel I did at last get round to would be troublesome. But I’m a writer, I write; when the name ‘Ophelia’ swam into my head, in 2008, I scribbled down endless notes and set to work.  The first line ‘There can’t be many people, especially of my age, who find out who they are via Wikipedia’ came into my head about six months later. And there I was with a book about a woman whose conception out of the chaos caused by Hitler even before his war broke out led to her being brought up by a stepfather without any real idea of the whereabouts of her parents – and in the case of her father even who he was. A kind of genealogical whodunit, you could say. I suppose that in publication terms I did not make it easy for myself by setting the story of her life around her dying – from an illness which she might have survived had she known her parentage: But it did not turn out a gloomy book, surprisingly, and I was pleased with it. And so were my agents: to the extent of employing an editor to help me polish it and to the extent, in due course, of going into self-publishing and producing it themselves, after the normal publishers returned a series of rave rejections - ‘ I love this book’ – ‘a lovely, lovely novel’ – ‘a wonderful read’ etc - followed by almost certainly sales generated doubts. ‘It’s not clear how we could re-establish this author’ (translation: too old: too low sales). Or ‘The book is ‘too reflective’ – ‘too quiet’ – the translation here, I daresay, ‘no dramatic ‘hook’ - the considerable drama in my book evidently too local to count.

A very usual story, alas. Agents are constantly failing to sell books that they love, that publishers would have jumped on a few years back, because of assessments made on non-literary grounds, by young men who are making mere guesses at future trends – often forgetting, seemingly, that a large proportion of novel readers are women over fifty. Who might well enjoy such ‘page-turning’ novels as mine: if they were offered them. 

Hence my agents’ venture into the world of ebooks and self-publication, via a specialist packager who does the business far more professionally than authors ever could, not least in finding professional artists to design a cover: and thence via Amazon’s services to self-publishing writers. The advantage for the agent is that they get their authors out there without it costing them much, their costs probably recovered by a percentage on sales – provided the author works hard on her own account. For this is the author’s disadvantage. Though the agent’s input relieves her of the stigma of vanity publishing the rest is up to her. She has to pay for the design not least, an essential cost for print on demand copies. And thereafter she has to do her own publicity: chasing up editors for reviews – writing round book websites to get them to review it, so on and so forth. Some authors are good at self-promotion. More like me are not.  Drafting the endless emails necessary is like shouting in a soundproofed room. I did manage to get interest from one excellent website, Vulpes Libres, which not only gave me a very good review but also an interview. And that seems subsequently to have persuaded Amazon to do a special promotion – offering the book at a much reduced price; of course. (What that will or won’t bring in terms of sales has yet to be seen – they reserve the right but to do no promotion at all but still reduce the price. That’s Amazon for you.)

The irony of course is that Amazon, with its brutal discounts, was my nemesis in the first place. Nor do I care for its failure to pay tax and still less for its treatments of its workers. And here I am dismounted from the moral high horse onto a less than dignified – and certain less moral - donkey – gratefully – sort of – accepting its services. But what else can a poor author do? Stay unpublished?

The main problem remains as ever: visibility: something publishers provide. Their salesmen tout the books round booksellers. They send copies for review to the media, they offer authors as speakers at literary festivals; they put them in for literary prizes. Authors have none of these advantages. Self-published books may of course be taken up by orthodox publishers, if they see money in it (I did apologise to my agent for having presented her with Goodnight Ophelia rather than 50 Shades of (bloody) Grey. ‘I would have rejected it if you had,’ she said which was comfort of sorts, I suppose.) But the chances of such ennoblement are vanishingly small. My agent’s suggestion of offering myself to book blogs was one way out of this impasse - some of them do appear to have very large readerships. Though this may not look much like visibility, someone of my generation may well underestimate the power of the Internet compared to more conventional media: and at the very least such exposure may sell a few more copies – the review in Vulpes Libris seems to have had some effect.  Facebook and Twitter are other options – but so far tweeting and updating my Facebook status has not got me very far.  (17 followers anyone? Pathetic.)

I suppose I could review myself on Amazon; some authors do – some even rubbish their competitor meantime. But no I can’t bring myself to do that. Yet.

Goodnight Ophelia by Penelope Farmer is published on CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. 2015. ISBN-13: 978-1496111968. 264pp. Also available as an ebook, published by C&W.