I’ve briefly mentioned R J Ellory a couple of times since I first heard him speak at a gathering of Bookcrossers in September but never seemed to get time to write about his novel, A Quiet Belief in Angels.
I was about one third of the way into this book when I recommended it as the one to-be-read for our book group for this month.
In spite of (or rather, because of) having heard R.J.’s very entertaining talk a few weeks earlier, I was at the Library Theatre in the middle of Birmingham last night to hear him again, together with several members of my book group. What a raconteur! I’d wondered if this would be a repeat of what he’d said to the Bookcrossers, but in the hour and a half (excluding his reading from the first chapter of The Anniversary Man) almost all the material was different, and even when the same anecdotes were included, they sounded as fresh and lively as before.
On that first occasion, he started by explaining that he was going to answer questions, rather than give a talk, and I was amazed and impressed by the fluent way he delivered his answers, fascinating mini-essays in themselves. I hadn’t yet read any of his books at that stage, so I was interested to hear what he might say about A Quiet Belief in Angels. When the interviewer finally invited questions from the audience, there was little time left. (That’s my excuse for not having the courage to formulate my question.)
Having recently finished reading A Quiet Belief in Angels, which is ‘about’ serial killings of little girls, I was interested to hear Wilson presenting a different angle on this theme, and focussing on the victims, rather than the killer. The former are those who exist on margins of society, (the elderly, babies, children, runaways, gay men and prostitutes) and the latter, typically, are ‘weedy and seedy’. Wilson talks about the banality of evil, and last night, Ellory concurred with that view.
Wilson’s thesis appeared to be as follows: if we are fascinated by these types of killings, we should try to reduce the incidence of serial killers. For example, we need to challenge some of our culture’s attitudes , such as homophobia. We could also look at how we police the safety of prostitutes, and why it is that those in the same trade in Amsterdam do not fall victim to serial killers.
I would have liked to ask R.J. if he was familiar with David Wilson’s opinions on these and related topics, and if so, what were his views about these, and had they ever met each other? I’d imagine that they would have a lot in common.
I mentioned above what A Quiet Belief in Angels is ‘about’. I have to say that if this was the primary content of the novel, I wouldn’t have read it from cover to cover. As he had already explained, what interests him is the impact that the crimes have on the characters in the community where they are committed, and he has done this very effectively. The writing is beautiful and evocative, with a very strong sense of place, at times reminding me of Steinbeck, a writer mentioned several times by the main protagonist, Joseph Vaughan. I particularly enjoyed the child’s perspective of everything that went on around him in the early part of the novel, and then later, the way that his perceptions shift as he grows older and he understands more clearly how he and others have been shaped and changed by the terrible murders.
Having heard R.J. speak of his own long and arduous journey towards eventual publication, I guessed that he must have hugely enjoyed describing Joseph Vaughan’s instant success in finding a publisher for his first novel – something to smile at, before the next murder.
For me, one of the most horrifying sections in the novel, was the miscarriage of justice and the brutal regime endured by Joseph and the other prisoners during his long incarceration.
Thinking about this book now, a few weeks after I’d finished it, my mind focuses on numerous scenes and characters that seem so real that the murdered children are merely ghostly echoes. For this, I’m grateful. I don’t want them in my head.
In this morning’s update from the on-line Bookseller, one of the headings that attracted me to read on was this: Real authors ‘dispirited’ by celeb-lit, says Mail –
Below the heading is a summary of the Mail article
‘ “Author anger as stars stampede to write a novel just like Jordan,” is a headline in today’s Daily Mail. “The trend [for celebrity written fiction books] has caused outrage among more traditional authors, who accuse publishers of accepting poor-quality manuscripts because they have a famous name attached,” reports the celeb-heavy newspaper.’
When I clicked the link to the article, and read a short extract from the novel to be published next month, I could see why people who enjoy well-written books (and those who write them) might feel outraged at the trend. The Mail’s extract from this novel by a TV actress, included such gems as: ‘Her lower lip was fuller than the top and when she smiled she lit up the room.’
Reading all this, I was in total agreement with the sentiments of authors, Deborah Moggach and PD James quoted in the Bookseller, and >“publisher Nick Perren (who) said he feared the rise of the celebrity novel could even put people off reading.”strong>
But then I found myself remembering so many of the brave men and women (young and older) who I’ve met during my years as an Adult Literacy tutor, and I experienced the familiar mind switch that happens from time to time as I catch myself flipping from one set of criteria (correct use of apostrophes, subject/verb agreement, etc) to one where my judgement about the piece of misspelt writing (handed to me in trepidation), overlooks the errors, and focuses first of all on the ideas or the story that has been so painstakingly, letter by letter, word by difficult word put down on paper.
So many of the women in particular come with a burning desire to read. Not any old thing – not magazines, or bills, or letters from the Council, though these, too, feature on their wish-lists, (in fact these are what they usually tell me at first) but then hesitantly one after another will confess to me in a half whisper, their impossible dream – to learn to read a whole BOOK.
And what has this to do with a TV celeb and her cliché ridden novel? ‘If you went for it, truly went for it, you could get the life you wanted here, and that was Mandy’s aim- to have it all. And why not? She’d read a greeting on a card once in Paperchase on the King’s Road that had truly stuck with her: ”Reach for the moon, and even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”’
I can think of women from my classes who would also be struck by those words of wisdom. Who am I to say they are shallow and meaningless?
That novel might be written in a style that some of ‘my’ students would find accessible , but at 400 pages, it would be far too long for those at the start of their journey towards their goal of reading a whole book. It would be the length, and not the impoverished nature of the writing style that might put people off reading altogether.
Confident readers, and particularly those who have developed a more discriminating taste, would avoid such a book. However, it might help to bridge the gap between the excellent Quick Reads books (more about these later) and the sorts of novels that you and I, dear reader, are nourished by.
In my latest post, I was talking about re-writing in general, and I mentioned a poetry blog site, How a Poem Happens, that had inspired and impressed me, and I’d intended to write in more detail about this today – But this has been a great week for poetry and that’s now going to have to wait a day or two, as I’m too excited about a package that was delivered by Royal Mail on Friday: I received my own ‘contributor’s’ copy of a wonderful anthology, ‘Cracking On’, in which I’m immensely privileged to have two of my own poems.
“ Outrage is easier for me, but that is here too, particularly in Mind the Gap, which challenges the young head on, rather than fading out quietly and letting them, and everyone else, continue to believe that youth is everything and old age is nothing much at all. Unrepentant, unapologetic, brave, confident and beautiful, these poems show that we older women deserve to live as full and rich a life as any other generation. And the nearer we get to the end, through Sick and Tired, Nearly There and into the Departure Lounge, the braver we get. Or at least these poets do. For those of us who are scared stiff, then these poems can help us through it.”
I’ve not yet had time to do more than dip into a few of these, and what struck me at once was how fresh and unusual these poems are, and how rarely I’ve come across any poems that deal with aging at all, let alone ones which, as Penelope Shuttle is quoted as saying, are ‘Electric, formidable, challenging, witty, sombre, enduring, heart-felt, tender, reflective, valedictory poems.’
No wonder I feel privileged to be among this company! One of mine, (Legacy)has already appeared in a previous post, so this Poem of the Week is the other one from Cracking On.
For my mother
My other dead are setting out to greet me,
their sprawling years
weighing them down like clay
but your compacted life, each heartbeat
counted, speeds towards me
light as a bird.
When my time comes, I’ll skim across the waves,
follow the scent of that girl pacing the deck,
Suez, Gulf of Arabia, Indian Ocean.
I’ll be that self once more under the peepul tree
as I lick the tip of thread for the needle’s eye,
stitch the final daisy on your gown.
I won’t know, yet, the cataclysm of
that love, the danger of giving
too much too soon.
My hands will cup the tautened belly, catch
the undulations of your limbs
against my palms.
I’ll mould my lips into the secret smile,
recover that sense of wonder - the key
to heaven. They’ll let me in.
This might seem a bit confusing to some readers if they don’t realise that the ‘I’ of the poem is my mother, and the ‘you’ is her first born child, the one referred to towards the end of ‘Legacy’ as ‘our long-dead brother’.
The journey through the Suez Canal to the Indian Ocean in this poem was made by my mother as a young woman, travelling out to India to marry my father, who was in the army out there during the war. Throughout our childhood,our oldest brother, who only lived for about three days, was regularly mentioned in night-time prayers.
It was only when I became a mother myself, that I started to realise what a tragedy that baby’s death would have been.
This week there’ve been two quite separate items that have made me ponder the art of re-writing. The first was from a poetry blog, describing a process of drafting and re-drafting that chimed with my own experiences of bringing a poem to completion.(I’ll be giving a link to that in my next post) The second was an article in this Wednesday’s Times 2, and it made me wince. To be more accurate, it was the subject of the piece (Jeffrey Archer) that had this effect on me, (not its writer (Erica Wagner).
I’m all for re-writing both prose and poetry as many times as it takes to reach the state of being ‘as good as it can be’. The real difficulty is identifying the bits that need to be changed or cut out entirely.
I’m often asked how long it took me to write my first published novel, The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society(my third novel for adults). I never have the full story plotted out from beginning to end – I have a general idea of where I’m heading, but I write in order to find out what my characters actually do and how they achieve this. I tend to do a lot of editing as the story unfolds, and I enjoy honing the pages the following day almost more than creating each new scene. It’s an integral part of the creative process for me.
The Dangerous Sports has 87,000 words (308 pages) but the original version was over 20,000 words longer. Click here to read more about how I made the novel much stronger by doing this. When it finally set out on its journey as a published book, it was, in spite of any shortcomings, a done deal.
What I’ve had to learn all over again, with my soon-to-be-published next novel, Paper Lanterns, is that re-writing each section at least once (and often three or four times) as I work my way towards a satisfactory conclusion of the novel, does NOT mean that this version is anything other than a first draft. I’ll expand on that in another post.
Paper Lanterns hasn’t yet been sent to the printers – there are a few more things to be sorted first, such as copy editing, and the cover design – something that’s put me into in a state of high excitement as I’ve only just received some initial ‘visuals’. I’ll be posting these and other versions here soon and will welcome readers’ views.
But getting back to the re-writing - I still feel fully justified in tweaking parts of some of the scenes in this novel, because it’s still in manuscript form and is yet to be delivered into the world as a finished product. Once it’s been printed and bound, with a lovely front cover and informative back cover, and all the pages in between, there’ll be no more re-writing.
What really made me wince in the Times article was an extract from Archer’s re-written book, Kane and Abel. I read it when it came out thirty years ago, and quite enjoyed it as an escapist read. I hadn’t thought it was presenting itself as anything other than that, and I would never have imagined that he would have bothered to write the whole thing again – especially if his explanation for doing so was really the true reason: “30 years later one is a better craftsman, one is better at one’s job’. I’d have thought that a ‘better craftsman’ would have preferred to demonstrate his improved craftmanship by writing a completely new novel.
I could go on, but I think that this article is available on the Times On-line, if anyone wants to find it. As for the art of re-writing, there’s a lot more to be said about the part it plays in the creation of a poem or a novel and still lots more for me to learn.
What a lovely day yesterday – almost warm enough for swimming outside, something I’ve done little of this year. Living in the Midlands, I don’t get many opportunities these days for swimming in the sea, so for me, the combination of warm air, willows and alder, grassy banks and a wide expanse of clear fresh water is (almost) irresistible. However, neither the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal,
nor the Severn Estuary near Slimbridge Wildfowl Trust,would have been a suitable place for me to indulge in that particular hobby.
It reminded me of a different swimming experience a few years ago in one of the lakes in Sutton Park. Sometimes in May and June early in the morning, before there was anyone around to challenge me for breaking the park rules, and the sun was already hot as it rose above the willows, I’d quickly change into my swimming costume and wade carefully over the smooth pebbles until I was in deep enough to swim.
I knew that the water was clean enough at that time of year (before any possibly dangerous algae that sometimes appeared in long spells of hot weather had spread across the surface). When I splashed my feet around beneath me, I could see them gleaming white in the pale brown water, but I knew that this colouration had come from layers of dead leaves and pieces of bark.
The most exotic birds I saw that day were the flamingos,
but nothing there could thrill me as much as the two described in the poem below.
If you see me, it’s disdain
not fear that lifts your wings
in that slow beat,
legs stretched out behind you
like a spear, angled breastbone
a flint arrowhead.
Sun rises into hazy blue
above alder and willow.
The lake’s cool skin
exhales an earthy scent -
in the bark-brown depth,
my white feet gleam like fish.
Here, I’m on a par
with moorhen or grebe.
Kingfisher flames by, inches
from my face – jolts my heart into
my mouth so heart takes wing
almost settles - till you,
heron, reveal your self,
perched in a shrine of leaves,
not bird, but acolyte of sun,
icon, blinding wingspan
wider than a swan’s
or angel’s, even.
This poem was written about five years ago, and it’s a true account of what I experienced that day.
I still like it, as it reminds me of that ‘magic moment’, but I’m not really able to make a subjective judgement on its quality as a poem – Not that great, I’d guess, but good enough for what it is!
It was my own monthly book group meeting yesterday evening, but while we were discussing Sebastian Barry’s ‘The Sacred Scripture’, (together with all sorts of non-book related topics ) none of us remembered that the winner of the Booker prize was being revealed at that very time. It wasn’t till I opened my daily briefing from the Bookseller after work today that I discovered the winner.
I have to say that I haven’t yet read any of the 6 books on the shortlist, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed dipping into various book blogging sites and reading reviews. (A few of my favourite sites are mentioned below) Not only do these act as an enjoyable displacement activity taking me away from my own writing projects, they can almost persuade me that I’ve actually read these books!
I did say ‘almost’ but that itself is a gross exaggeration - or is it wishful thinking? No, the reviews inspire me to be reading these books, not to have read them. It’s the state of being in-the-middle-of a good book that I love. The state of having-just-finished one can make me feel bereft.
Mmm. I’ll have to think about that. Actually, there is also pleasure in reflecting on what I’ve just read – a kind of mental meandering around the edges of the book’s territory, and making forays back into its heart. But that’s enough aimless musing for one day.
Back to the Booker winner, HilaryMantel. I’ve just googled her to check out the names of the two of hers that I read and enjoyed, ages ago: Mother’s Day’ and ‘Fludd’ . I was fascinated to see the speed with which Wikepedia gets updated- the wording of the short extract below makes it seem as if 2009 were already done and dusted – as if the year isn’t rattling past fast enough as it is.
“The long novel Wolf Hall, about Henry VIII’s minister Thomas Cromwell, was published in 2009 to high critical acclaim. The book went on to win that year’s Man Booker Prize and upon winning the award, Mantel stated “I can tell you at this moment I am happily flying through the air”.[“
Reading the various articles about Hilary Mantel has taken me back about eleven years to the lecture hall at Nottingham Trent University where I was doing my part-time MA in writing – two evenings per week for two years. One of the joys of that course was the ‘Core’ module. All we had to do was to turn up on the Monday evenings, sit back and listen enthralled to a visiting author who’d been invited to inspire us to follow in their footsteps to fame and fortune (or at the very least, to publication.)
One thing I remember from Hilary Mantel’s visit was her advice to make sure we were working on our next novel well before the one that had just been accepted came out in print. That was the first time I realised that it could take up to two years from acceptance to publication. There were other authors too, who spoke in an equally down-to-earth manner about their journeys towards publication. In a strange way, this made the possibility of our own eventual publication both more, and at the same time less, attainable.
At that time I don’t think I really believed that a novel of mine would ever appear in a book shop. How wrong I was! Here’s a link to an article about my own experience of what happened after my novel was acceptedfor publication.
I was in Sussex visiting my mother this weekend, and for a change, Gardening Husband came with me. I’m always happy to let him drive, because it means that I can have a good long stretch of reading time. (Something I often find hard to do at home). I’d just started Breath, by Tim Winton, and was able to finish it by the time we arrived. I need more time to mull over this book – I found it enthralling, but haven’t sorted out my thoughts and feelings enough to write anything coherent about it yet.
My return journey took me about a third of the way into RJ Ellory’s A Quiet Belief in Angels. I wish we’d been driving up to John O’ Groats, and back to give me a chance to finish it. I don’t think I’ll get much of a chance to read more long chunks of it this week. I’ll just have to be patient, and wait to find out what happens next.
Yesterday was cloudy with an almost gale force wind. Coming down over the brow of the hill towards Seaford, I could see the white horses scattered across the dark green and purple sea, but today has been another one of those Indian summer days, with a clarity of light that I associate with fine weather in October.
That leads me nicely to this week’s poem – especially as it’s the traditional time of Harvest Festivals.
October is the time to harvest light,
on days when lingering strands of summer
drift into a sky that rings like glass,
honing the dulled edges of your sight
to gather all the shift and shimmer
of slanting sun on trees and tawny grass,
gilding the familiar with surprise.
This morning I escaped into a park
where light lay ripe and waiting for my eyes,
trapped on wet black mud – splintering on dark
green spikes of holly into shards so bright
I’ll feast all winter on this hoard of light.
The original inspiration for this poem came while I was on my MA course at Nottingham Trent. We had one of the occasional Saturday meetings, and went out into the nearby countryside. The sky was absolutely clear and blue, the sun was warm, but there was a hint of chill in the air, and we gradually became aware of strands of tiny threads of cobwebs drifting around us and glistening in the sunlight.
I was delighted when this poem was accepted for publication in Acumen 2000. It’s one that I’m still happy to be reminded of at this time of year.
I was awake extra early this morning, and instead of my usual half-hour jog down a leafy track under the arch of trees (an old coach-road, apparently), then across the golf course, and along the edge of the stream, and back up the road, I sat down at my computer and visited some of my favourite blog sites.
When I’ve gone a few days without dipping in to these sources of mental stimulation my brain gets as itchy and restless as the rest of my body does when I’ve missed out on physical exercise.
I was well rewarded this morning before I went to work, and again when I returned this afternoon. But before that, came a big disappointment – One of the first book-blogs that I’d come across, Ex-libris ‘taking an indefinite hiatus from blogging’.
It was a lively site with thoughtful reviews and I always enjoyed my visits (not merely to the link to her kind review of my novel, The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society)
My next stop, Rhapsody in Books yielded two delights with one hit: There was the smiling face of my friend, Linda Gillard, an excellent novelist holding a fascinating discussion with an author I’d never heard of, Gillian Philip, who writes Young Adult fiction. Of course I then had to scroll down to the review that Linda had posted there about Gillian’s latest novel. I won’t say anything more about that, as you can read it yourself here!
I’m sometimes amazed at the amount I’ve forgotten in my life of what used to be an important source of pleasure and insight – in this particular case, the Young Adult books I used to read when I taught English in a girls’ Secondary Modern School (that shows how long ago it was- there’ll be plenty of people who’ve never heard of anything but comprehensives and grammar schools) –anyway, reading those posts, I was reminded of how I used to love those books – The main name that comes to mind is KM Peyton with her Flambard Trilogy and the rebellious schoolboy, Pennington, but there were lots of others.
Reading about Gillian Philip’s Crossing the Line has reminded me of how YA books often tackle the really important subjects in a very readable and thought-provoking way.
Another of my favourite sites is Dovegrey Reader and there again I was awash with nostalgia, thinking of books I’ve enjoyed over the years. Today’s post was about Susan Hill’s book ‘Howards End is on the Landing’ It sounds very enticing and I love the idea of listing my forty favourite books, and reflecting on each of them as I do this.
Another one that I first came across fairly recently is Juxtabooks This time my eye was caught by Juxtabook’s Top 10 Books of the Last Ten Years. I’d read five of her ten, and of those, I’d rate at least two as some of my own top favourites – Cloud Atlas I ’read’ as an unabridged audio version – it was fascinating to hear the six different voices telling their different tales. For the first couple of minutes of each new ‘story’ I’d feel a bit lost, not wanting to leave the other voice behind me, but overall I found it a compelling read. The other was Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Craik, in which I found echoes from some of the ‘future’ parts of Cloud Atlas. I won’t attempt to say anything else about the books, as you can read those reviews for yourself.
Last, but by no means least, is a new treasure – Baroque in Hackney, a site crammed with a huge variety of posts and links. I’m afraid it’s going to be a particularly effective displacement activity for me in the future.