Friday, 27 January 2012

More Writer’s Secrets: Dickens, Chocolate Hobnobs, Pompey and Me.

All right, so I don’t have any real secrets to reveal about my relationship with either Charles Dickens or his work, but I liked the sound of the Jane Austen title I used last week and thought I might be able to hit blog title “gold” twice.

Well, I haven’t.  Obviously. Not only are McVities Chocolate Hobnobs not as hilarious a name for snack treats as Hostess Ding Dongs, but I’ve actually read several (though not all) of Dickens’ books. I know a bit about his life and times, too.  Let’s see: Portsmouth, Rochester, blacking factory, debtor’s prison, journalism, Preston strikes, Household Words, Gad Hill; being the toast of America and later its public enemy number one, having lots of children, dumping his wife, acquiring the obligatory hot young actress girlfriend, dying.

If I have any confession to make about Dickens, it’s that I haven’t always been madly in love with his writing. A bit, well, overblown, I’ve always thought. A bit too male, maybe—all whiskery and itchy around the collar. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course. Male is good, in my opinion. But Dickens features the wrong kind of male—too much Brian Blessed, not enough Michael Fassbender. And, as you may have guessed, I’ve never felt over-reverential about his legacy (in the way that I do about Shakespeare, say). It’s that dumped wife, and all those abandoned kids, I guess. It’s also those slightly Daily Mail-esque political values, which he held despite his profound empathy with the poor and powerless.

But now, he’s 200 years old (Dickens, that is, not Brian Blessed) and I’ve decided to forgive his anti-union rants and his extra-marital dalliance (I’m sure he’d be so pleased about this…) I’m dipping back into the Dickens canon, because if it’s not exactly shameful not to wax lyrical about Dickens, it is a tad embarrassing not to be at least somewhat enthusiastic. So, I’ve started with “A Tale of Two Cities,” and will carry on from there. I visited the utterly charming Dickens museum on Doughty Street in London recently, and that, too, inspired me to approach his work again. 

Of course, I have another reason to re-engage with Charles Dickens. He was born in Portsmouth (see map) and so was my son, my first-born. In fact, Portsmouth (Southsea, rather) was the beginning of many things for me. It was where I started my real relationship with then-boyfriend, now-husband, Jim, who I left San Francisco to be with. It was the site of the first British pub I ever drank in. It was the place where I began writing, one dark December evening at a WEA Creative Writing Class in North End.

Sigh. It was a long time ago—not quite 200 years ago, but almost.

So, in this, the year, 2012,  when Dickens is 200 and my first book will be published, I think it’s only right that I should go back and reflect on the place where he, and my son, and my writing were all born. 

Ah. The Hobnobs, you ask. What about the Hobnobs? Well, if you really must know, it was just as I was just about to into labour with my son. I was walking back from the antenatal clinic in excruciating pain because a midwife had done what I will call “that poking thing” to “get me going.” Luckily, Chocolate Hobnobs had just been invented, and there was a shop between the clinic and my house.

“Hobnobs,” I thought, as I walked down Highland Road (see map!) as bow-legged as some rickets-ridden Dickensian crone.  “There will be Hobnobs. Only 200 metres further…there will be…” 

24 hours later, the packet of Hobnobs were history and my son was born. The best of times and the best of times, as Charles Dickens never said. 

Friday, 20 January 2012

A Writer's Secrets: Jane Austen, Ding Dongs and Me

Some of you may be reading this in the hope that I’ll reveal my amazing secrets for writing a book or getting it published (or will at least divulge the name of that miracle food that is the secret to getting rid of belly fat.)

If so, prepare to be disappointed. This post is NOT about my non-existent “tricks of the trade”, or my similarly non-existent fat-busting tips.  

No, it’s about my real literary secrets—the dark, soul-corroding ones that any writer worth his or her salt would be ashamed to admit.  

But I’m feeling confessional today. I need to offload.  Well, actually, I need to keep this blog up to date and by illustrating my paltry “secrets” I will be able to waste a lot of blog space on uploaded pictures. Hurrah!

Secret 1) 

I have never read a book by Jane Austen.

 I was initially put off by failing  to understand the opening line of  "Pride and Prejudice": 

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” 

In want of a......huh? What gives? Does that mean he wants a wife or doesn’t want a wife? Oh, sorry, does  “in want of” actually mean “need”?  Well then, say so, Jane--tell it like it is. 

Somehow, that line seemed crafted to personally trip me up. And was it actually supposed to be amusing? 

Well, I’m still not laughing.

The shameful truth is that, to me,  Jane Austen means only one thing: Colin Firth gazing into my eyes while wearing gloriously tight trousers.

Secret  2) 

I’ve never read any of the Harry Potter series. Wait--there's a reason for this, and no, it's not because I didn't understand the first line....

It was because the first Harry Potter book made my daughter cry.   

“Sniff…everybody else in my year is able to read Harry Potter on their own except…sob…me.” 

Although I don’t think JK personally targeted my child for humiliation, it felt like that at the time. And never mind that my daughter eventually upped her reading game and became a total Harry Potter obsessive…a mother never forgets.

Like Jane Austen, JK Rowling has given me one lovely thing to gaze upon, though:

Jason Isaacs looking mean and nasty in a gloriously blonde wig...

Secret 3) 

When I was a child, I loved watching TV (while eating hideously fattening and teeth-rotting snack treats) more than reading.  In fact, I probably loved watching TV and eating snack treats more than I’ve loved anything in my life. 

 Of course, I was a kid during the “golden age” of TV and treats…

When anyone, of any age, talks about Scooby-Doo, I come over like some gnarly acid-fried hippie who was at the original Woodstock and say, “Yeah, man…I was there…the first episode, man..” But instead of bragging about drug consumption, I drool and mutter wistfully about the Ding Dongs and Ho-hos, the Mallow Cups and Peanut Butter Smoothies, the Hot Tamales and the Fruity Mike and Ikes.   
Secret 4)

I did read when I was a kid, of course.  I read and bought books—plenty of them—but to prove to myself how clever I was, I bought or read books that were seriously out of my league, and then either didn’t understand a word of them:

Or mispronounced  the titles and character names : Less Miserable, anyone? You, know, that French book about a man called “Gene Val-Gene?”

Well, those are enough embarrassing revelations for one day.  I do feel much better now. A bit hungry, too...


Friday, 13 January 2012

An Extra Chapter or Two

I have young adult children. Not the young adults of the 12+ or 14+ YA readership recommendations, but the 18+ variety. You know the type—fully-grown but still young by anyone’s definition and not yet firmly planted in “grown-up” soil. So, I’ve reached the point of motherhood where, even though my interest in their lives and my concern for their well-being is as strong as ever (some might call it stalking…), my day-to-day contact with them is sporadic. They’re nearly their own, nearly able to look after themselves. But, like many people in their late teens or early twenties, they’re not quite there yet. Life can still be unsettled at that age, and for many young people, unfortunately, the future is anything but secure.

Last week I wrote about one of the starting points for “At Yellow Lake”: thinking about characters I’d written about years before, and imagining what might have happened to them if their short story had continued.

Today, I’m wondering the same way about my main characters in “At Yellow Lake.”
In most YA novels, characters have difficult lives, and Etta, Jonah and Peter are no exceptions. There is always an upheaval, or traumatic event. Usually the difficulties come from somewhere outside the character. The mistakes, the disastrous decisions, are made by adults—Parents, teachers, political leaders. The young characters have to deal with these adult-induced catastrophes and make sense of them, find some sort equilibrium for themselves.

And that’s the end of the story.

But I can’t help wondering about what would happen if it wasn’t the end of the story. I’m not talking about sequels, but about taking an imaginary leap into the futures of Etta and Jonah and Peter. I like to think that all three of them will somehow live happily ever after. Their problems are well and truly over, right? They’ve sorted everything out, haven’t they? They won’t make the mistakes their parents did, won’t fall into the same traps?   

I’ve recently read two brilliant books about vulnerable teenagers—“Being Billy” by Phil Earle, about Billy, who lives in a care home,  and “15 Days Without a Head” by Dave Cousins, about Laurence, whose mother is an alcoholic. Both books vividly portray the tenacity and inventiveness of kids living in the shadow of colossal parental messing-up. Both stories are, to some extent, resolved, and the endings, though heartbreakingly sad, are still poignant and optimistic.

By letting me immerse myself so deeply in the world of Billy and Laurence, the writers have made me worry about these boys’ imaginary futures—how easy would it be for them to stay strong, to continue resisting the temptation of alcohol, violence or crime? Obviously, characters who are truly alive on the page (as Laurence and Billy are) have an extended lifespan after the book is closed. We may never know how their lives turn out, even if the writer returns to them in another book, but we will always wonder…

I don’t know if I can make a link between fictional characters and young adults who actually exist. But like Billy and Laurence, young adults aren’t necessarily at the end of their childhood story by the time their allotted “pages” have been turned. The milestones of youth—leaving school, finishing exams, turning 18, even graduating from university or getting a good job—don’t always lead to instant happiness or achievement. The years after school can be difficult ones, especially for those who are vulnerable and lacking support.

So let's not set young adults aside before they are "finished".  Some of them might need a few more pages to get things sorted out in their lives. Others might take an extra chapter or two. And there are some young people--plenty of them, I'd imagine--who might need (and deserve) another book!


Friday, 6 January 2012

Long Day's Journey to Publication

I think it’s fitting that I’m paraphrasing the title of the great Eugene O’Neill play for this post. Long Day’s Journey into Night deals with all sorts of dysfunction—alcoholism, regret, bitterness, denial—just a few of the pitfalls a writer has to deal with on the gruelling road to publication!

I’ll leave those issues for another post. It’s the word “long” I want to focus on today, because it has taken me many years to have a full-length piece of writing published. So many years, that when I read the phrase “debut writer” I feel a little embarrassed—I’m too old to be a debut anything.  To me, the word “debut” suggests a teenaged girl in a pink prom-dress, or a gangly young man in an ill-fitting suit. I’m more like a “journeywoman” or even a “veteran.” You know—wily or grizzled—definitely not this “sparkling” person my book’s blurb refers to.

But, whether you’re grizzled or still bubbling away, the journey to publication almost always involves detours or dead-ends—even a washout or two. I’m sure there are many writers who, in their early 20s, produce good work, find an agent, get a publishing or production deal, then spend the rest of their lives in the lofty and lucrative company of other sensitive poet-souls.

For most of us, though, it doesn’t work like that. Life gets in the way—there may be a demanding job, there may be children, there may be darker surprises like illness or divorce or needing to care for an elderly parent.

Or we may be late-starters. I didn’t start writing until I was in my 30s, and that was at the same time as I had my children. Not the best timing, really, but I still miss getting up before they did (my son was usually awake and ready to go at 5:00 a.m.), sitting in a dark cold room,  bashing out short stories on an old manual typewriter (probably while smoking an illicit fag, too—just to add to the romance of the scene). 

So, I started late, had kids—but then some of my stories got published! And one of the stories was spotted by a young film director who helped me adapt it as a possible short film for Channel 4, and then I wrote another full length spec script that lead to meetings at the BBC and Channel 4 and phone calls from producers and interest from agents and then….well….nothing. No options. No productions. Not even on offer of representation.

I sold another measly story. That was it.

I’d hit a creative dead-end. And I’d had enough of having hopes raised only to be dashed to the ground again, so after the late start, the having kids, the dealing with years of rejection, I stopped writing. Not for too long a time, but long enough to finish a degree in English. Long enough to train as a teacher. Long enough for my kids to sleep in later than 5 a.m. Long enough for JK Rowling to make publishing history, and the section “Young Adult” to appear on bookshop shelves.   

And when I started writing again, I re-read that “measly” story that had been published. I’d been thinking about the characters in it, and wondering where they might have ended up if their story had continued. Gradually (and very slowly, of course!) they found somewhere new to live—inside a new, longer story, about the nature of identify and family, about what makes a place “home.”  

That story was the starting point for “At Yellow Lake.”

So, a long day’s journey it has been. I know that writers who are scrabbling to find the time to write, or are dealing with the numbing reality of personal difficulties, or are opening up their e-mails to find yet another rejection or piece of disheartening news, know only too well the bumps and twists on the writing road. Much of the time, the whole bloody trip can seem depressing, frustrating and completely pointless.

But sometimes there’s no other way to get to a place. It’s the only road and you’re on it, so you might as well enjoy the stunning scenery, the company of your fellow travellers, those mysterious little side roads that lead you to places strange and new.

And if it seems like it’s taking forever, well, maybe that’s how long it takes.