The Secret History opens a door to the past

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You don’t have to have murdered someone in your college days to go through a spell of nostalgia after reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt. This haunting book captures the clannishness, the impressionability, the uncertainty and excess of those years. It is a story about the defining experiences we would rather forget, if only we could.

Of course the Greek-quoting, champagne-swilling lifestyle enjoyed by the six main characters in The Secret History is far removed from the experience of the average student. The rarefied atmosphere cultivated by these privileged classics students belongs to a lost era; this is how we imagine things were when only the rich and brilliant entered the hallowed halls of university.

Told as a memoir from the perspective of the latest addition to the exclusive group, the novel reveals how, and ultimately why, five of the six “clever, eccentric misfits” end up colluding in the killing of their friend.

The book, set in an elite college in Vermont, takes up the mantle of The Great Gatsby so overtly that the students, in tweeds and cashmere, could be the grandchildren of Tom and Daisy Buchanan and the narrator Richard a direct descendant of Nick Carraway.

Those formative years between adolescence and adulthood are fertile ground for fiction and The Secret History draws on other classics such as Catcher in the Rye, Crime and Punishment and Brideshead Revisited, sometimes by direct reference.

But nothing in the 600 plus pages of The Secret History happens by accident. The novel is so well crafted it screams good writing. There is so much to enjoy – from the biting satire in the depiction of the family of the murder victim Bunny, to the heart-wrenching descriptions of tortured souls and the beautiful passages on the changing seasons. My only criticism would be the sense of repetition in the countless scenes of heavy drinking and hangovers. But knowing the writer, that was probably deliberate.

Like many people, I was inspired to read The Secret History after the long-awaited and much-fêted appearance of Tartt’s third novel, The Goldfinch (don’t say anything, I’m only on page 304). Somehow I missed The Secret History when it was first published in 1992, even though it was right in the middle of my college years.

I’d love to hear your impressions of this book or any thoughts on the folly of youth. Among the small readership of this blog are three people I went to university with who have remained good friends to this day. I believe that the decision we made in 1989 to study Russian was one of the most significant and far-reaching of our lives. Or maybe I’m just carried away by The Secret History.

Here’s what Donna Tartt’s narrator Richard Papen has to say on the question. Read the punctuation and weep!

I suppose there is a certain crucial interval in everyone’s life when character is fixed forever; for me, it was the first fall term I spent at Hampden. So many things remain with me from that time, even now: those preferences in clothes and books and even food – acquired then, and largely, I must admit, in adolescent adulation of the rest of the Greek class – have stayed with me through the years.

The Laws of Love by Clare O’Dea

Some children start out unwanted but are soon loved and cherished. It was not so with me. Once unwanted, always unwanted. When I reached an age where I could question this, I could only conclude that I was missing the loveable ingredient possessed by other children, and no amount of eagerness to please would make up for this.

If my eldest brother is to be believed, my parents were happy in the early days. There was laughter and fun, there were callers and outings. Ten years later, when my newborn cries were keeping everyone awake, there was bitterness and want.

I developed a system of good and bad luck omens. Walking home from school I would fall back from my brothers and sisters and bet my wellbeing on chance variations in detail along the route. If the Currys have sheets on the line I will get a smile from mother, if it’s clothes I’ll get a clout, if it’s nothing, I’ll get nothing. I had the odds well worked out.

Mealtimes were quiet. There was none of the grabbing and rushing people associate with big families. We had our portion and we wanted to savour it. Not to forget my mother’s temper, which had a civilising effect on us all. I did not go to bed hungry although if I woke in the night hunger was lurking. We had clothes to wear, we washed. No laws were broken but the laws of love.

Escape was a room in a boarding house in Dublin 7, a house of straw as it turned out. I got shop work and independence, blighted at first by unwelcome attention from men in the neighbourhood. I faithfully sent money home and scraped by. A new room in a new house and life turned a corner. I met your father.

Shall I recite for you the list of his virtues? You could not know them all, for what child does? In the order in which I discovered these sides to him: he was good company, true to his word, thoughtful, tender and compassionate. He was in love with life and with me by association, and so together we built a house of sticks. What you saw between us was less than we started out with, to be sure, but it was still something good.

When I discovered that I was expecting – pregnant was considered a coarse word in those days, much too blunt – I felt the deepest and fullest satisfaction of my life. Those were my glory days.

Nothing could match my zeal. I was going to be the perfect mother. I was determined to shield you two from any harm at any cost. You placed your fervent baby love in me; I mixed it with my anxious adoration and gave it back to you in dangerous measures. It is not an exaggeration to say that I worshipped you. The light that shone from your eyes was my sun, moon and stars. I feasted on your purity and beauty. Your father could only watch and pray.

No doubt many mothers delight in every gesture and utterance of their children. But if they do, there is a counterbalance – feelings of criticism and irritation. This was missing in me. I bathed you in love and subjugated myself to you and your needs. There were no tensions between you children because I fulfilled your every desire. My purpose in life was to see that you wanted for nothing. I am truly sorry.

Wherever I was in the house I ran at the first cry. I smoothed over every conflict, made equal room on my lap for victim and culprit. When you stumbled I caught you before you hit the ground. I cooked only your favourite foods, bought your favourite toys and shoes, protected you from challenges and disappointments. I was ever vigilant. No laws were broken but the laws of love.

School was torture for me – hours of the day when anything could be happening to you, and all out of my control. I redoubled my efforts at home. There your spirits were replenished before you went out to face another day of adversity without me. Your father, Lord rest him, could not compete with my fanaticism. He retreated into his own life outside the home, which suited us, didn’t it?

This has been the way of our family until now. And look where it has taken us. For all the love I heaped upon you growing up, your cupboards are bare. Your every action motivated by self-interest, you can only muster mean-spirited possessiveness and call it love. Christopher is the worst offender, the newspapers are sure of that. What he did to that poor girl is one thing, but who can fathom his lack of remorse? No-one, apart from the woman who nurtured that weakness over many years.

What about you Paula? The results may not make headlines but I have failed you just as badly. When I think of all your father’s virtues, you match each one with the opposite vice. You navigate your way through life with wilfulness and spite. People are drawn to your narcissistic ways and then hurt by them. Your children suffer, their father too. I have my reasons alright.

Now that your father is gone, the house reverts to me. When you get out of prison Christopher there will not be a home here for you anymore. I am selling and plan to buy a small house of bricks for myself. I will not be passing the address on to either of you. Paula, get a nanny. If it’s any consolation I blame myself.

I hope you enjoyed this piece of flash fiction. I haven’t posted any short stories for a while because I discovered that publishing on a blog breaks the ‘previously unpublished’ rule for most journals and competitions. All the same, sometimes it’s nice to send a story out for its own sake.

Are you writing in the right language?

You hear a lot about voice in fiction. Agents and publishers are looking for new voices. New writers still haven’t found their voice. Reviewers rave about the novel’s voice. And the rest. But what about writers who go so far as to write phonetically in the dialect of their own community? How’s that for voice?

Recently at Bern Literary Festival I had an interesting conversation with two writers about language and translation. One was a Swiss writer whose breakthrough success came when he finally wrote a book in his own dialect. His name is Pedro Lenz. The other was his translator, short story author Donal McLaughlin from Glasgow.

Swiss Germans like Pedro Lenz speak dialect all the time, unless they really have to speak standard German for some formal reason, or to communicate with a non-Swiss German speaker. Many never feel fully at ease in standard German (also known as high German). And yet most Swiss German writers write in high German because that is considered the ‘proper’ language.

In the case of McLaughlin, whose childhood was split between Derry and Glasgow, there was more than one leap to be made to get to grips with the standard English taught at school. Europe, despite all its disappearing dialects, is still full of this kind of linguistic tension.

The meeting with Lenz and McLaughlin was one of those rare occasions when my day job intersected with my interest in writing fiction. I put together a podcast for swissinfo.ch which was published last week. I’m including it here if you would like to listen to the conversation. There’s also an article based on the same subject.

And for those who’d like to test their knowledge of Glaswegian, here are some phrases from the Glaswegian book Naw Much of a Talker (Original title: Der Goalie Bin Ig). Maybe you have some great lines or vocabulary to share from your own home-grown style of English?

Kid ye slip me a fifty tae Monday? (Could I borrow fifty [pounds] ‘til Monday?)

Ah get ma kick fae the present (I get my kick from the present)

It’s guid craic, listenin tae a French-speaker tryin tae speak German (It’s good fun, listening to a French speaker trying to speak German)

Marta but was greetin aw the way home. (Marta was crying all the way home)

Looks like his wife picks stuff ootae her stupit catalogue fae him – ivry couple ae years. (Looks like his wife picks stuff out of her stupid catalogue for him – every couple of years.)

Children in school, mothers on stand-by

I’m not saying there is a conspiracy in Switzerland to make life difficult for working mothers of primary school children, but if there were a conspiracy it might account for my experiences over the past four years, and look something like this:

Strategy 1: Mix it up
Have children start school (kindergarten) at the age of four but give them an erratic timetable. For fun, have the children come in three mornings a week, obviously not consecutive mornings, and throw in an afternoon just to keep it interesting.

I’m not making this up. My four year old has school on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings and Thursday afternoon for two hours. That’s it. Every night she asks, do I have school tomorrow? And every morning, do I have school today? Keep ‘em guessing.

Strategy 2: Complications
In the first few years, give different classes different afternoons and mornings off each week. That way, families with more than one child will be kept on their toes with multiple childcare gaps and a different timetable for each child.

Strategy 3: The lunch trap
Close down the school for two hours in the middle of the day so that the timetable looks like this: Morning: 7.45a.m. to 11.30a.m.; Afternoon: 1.40p.m. to 3:30p.m.

Let the parents worry about where the children will eat and who will look after them. Provide a minimum number of places in an after-school programme nearby. Sit back and watch the parents scramble for these places, at their own expense.

Strategy 4: Rise and shine
Start school at an ungodly hour of the morning, so children are too sleepy to eat breakfast and parents are grateful for the children having random mornings off during the week to recover.

Ok, the early start is part and parcel of Swiss society. It’s the norm for people to start work before eight so we all have to go to bed early and get up early.

But the rest? I hear the argument sometimes that these timetables are geared towards children, based on the notion that starting school is a big change for children so they should be eased in gradually.

But I find it hard to believe such a lack of routine is good for children. What about the body clock? And I know it is not good for parents trying to organise childcare.

For stay-at-home mothers who are attached to their role, these timetables have one advantage. It makes them indispensable. They can rightly point out that they hardly have time to turn around, do the shopping and start cooking before the children are home again.

But what if this is a gilded cage? I want stay-at-home mothers to be valued, not shackled to the home. Is it good that mothers who have already put in a huge effort in the baby and pre-school years are so restricted they cannot think of taking on another activity during the 20 to 30 hours their school-gong children are away during the week?

Is there any other country clinging to this home-for-lunch model? In Ireland the four and five year olds attend school from 9a.m. to 1p.m., Monday to Friday. They eat a packed lunch at the 11a.m. break. From the age of six or seven (first class), the school day runs from 9a.m. to 2.30p.m.

This is not about treating schools as a babysitting service for selfish career-mongering parents (a view I’ve heard expressed), it is just a simple plea to stop pretending that the two worlds – home and school – have nothing to do with each other.

I should point out that my children like coming home at lunch on the days I am here but I wouldn’t consider it a hardship for them if things were different. They were just as happy doing five-and-a-half-hour days when they attended school in Dublin for a term.

More and more Swiss schools are adapting, and have begun to provide supervision and hot meals at lunchtime but it is still a minority. Maybe mothers will be able to ‘lean in’ a bit more when this becomes the norm.

Like most mothers of young children in Switzerland, I work part-time, and accept the trade-off that my career will stall for the time being, in return for spending more time with my children.

But to “escape” into the earning world even for 20 hours a week without live-in childcare requires some creative solutions. Last year I traded childcare with a neighbour, both of us taking on each other’s children for a 10-hour day. Luckily my husband also leans in to childcare duty and we have great support from family living nearby.

To repeat what I said earlier, it’s not that there’s a conspiracy to make life difficult for working mothers. It is just that the system evolved to complement a traditional situation which is no longer the reality for many families – and in some regions the winds of change have not yet arrived.

It’s complicated enough for two-parent families. Last week I heard a Swiss parliamentarian say that the majority of social welfare recipients are households headed by one parent. How many more of them would be able to hold down a job if their children weren’t coming and going every few hours?

So what do you think? Am I being unfair to the Swiss way of life? Would you swap your system for ours?

You’ll find more background on this topic in this article I wrote for swissinfo a couple of years ago: Swiss mothers hold back from having it all.

Take a walk with an old man

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Most English speakers will go through life without ever reading a Swiss novel. It’s not surprising. There are so many countries, so many languages – and not enough of their literary treasures are scooped up in the English translation net. But the ones that make it are well worth opening, if only to look at the world through a different lens.

You might find something beautiful, something completely different to anything you’ve ever read before, something like Zbinden’s Progress by Christoph Simon.

I just finished the book on the train on the way home this evening. I also read it while sitting in a department store restaurant in Bern at lunchtime, and in between flipping pancakes for breakfast on Sunday.

The Zbinden of the title is Lukas Zbinden, a frail elderly widower living in a retirement home who loves to talk and loves to go for walks. His progress is his slow journey from his room on the third floor down to the ground floor entrance, on the arm of a carer. The bulk of novel is narrated in his voice during this arduous trek. I can’t imagine how Simon pitched the book but within the confines of this device, he manages to skilfully and movingly present a life story, a love story and a comedy of manners.

No doubt you’ll soon take a shine to them all: the respectable ladies and eccentric gentlemen, the talkative widows and taciturn bachelors, the seasoned walking-frame users, shuffling stay-at-homes with faces like dried meat. The confused ones, whose thoughts roll around like peas on a plate. Those on medication with a cocktail in their veins of which blood’s just a minor ingredient. Veteran engineers, tradesmen and -women, office workers, housewives, civil servants, army personnel, fire extinguisher inspectors, bus drivers, over-achievers, service workers, stationary shop staff.

Zbinden’s Progress is a slim volume but we get to know a lot of Lukas’ fellow residents and their foibles. But most of all the old man likes to wax eloquent about walking, and he puts a lot of energy into trying to convert others to this noble calling.

Do you know what it means to go for a walk? Going for a walk is: acquiring the world. Celebrating the random. Preventing disaster by being away. Speaking to the bees though you’re already a bit too old for that. Not being especially rushed on a street that’s like an oven in the afternoon sun. Missing the tram. … Going at your own pace. Going for a walk is: saying hello to more people than you know. Losing Frau Dürig amid the turmoil of the Christmas market. Sensing a storm brewing, from a distance.

The endearing thing about Lukas Zbinden is that he knows how ridiculous he sounds. A former teacher, he realises he is a pedant but he is never pompous. This is probably because he was married to Emilie, a thoroughly practical woman who combined rock solid self-belief with exceptional generosity of spirit. We hear a lot about his love for Emilie and relive the defining moments of their marriage.

What I love about Zbinden’s Progress is that the main character both encapsulates and subverts the Swiss stereotype. On the surface he has led such a conventional life – army recruit, schoolteacher, married father-of-one, enthusiastic walker – but at heart he’s a revolutionary. I’ll keep an eye out for him on my walks from now on.

Yes, this book will stay with me. Its message of stopping to smell the roses is one we need to be reminded of more than ever in the communication whirlwind modern society has become.

And I really like what he says about competition, “the lion tamer, constantly cracking his whip and rushing people”.

Competition takes us up a very high mountain, from which you can see far. It opens the curtains and we can see all the riches of the world and all its splendour. Competition says to us: I’ll give you all of that if you are industrious enough and compete well.

Zbinden’s Progress (Spaziergänger Zbinden) was translated by Donal McLaughlin, a prolific translator of contemporary Swiss fiction. I mentioned before that I met McLaughlin in Bern recently when he was over from Glasgow for a reading from another of his translations Naw Much of a Talker by Pedro Lenz. I’ll be able to link to a podcast discussion with McLaughlin and Lenz next week when it is published on swissinfo.ch.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your recommendations. What book, translated or not, has awakened strong feelings in you?

Did I miss the memo?

Snow White and the Huntsman, Universal Pictures

Snow White and the Huntsman, Universal Pictures

A novel is long enough for all your writing weaknesses to come out of the shadows but it takes an outside eye to see them. I am now much better informed about my pet redundant words, grammar sins and my penchant for padding, thanks to one particularly ruthless and brilliant editor friend.

For instance there was a short scene in my novel where the main character put on make-up before going out for the evening. Those lines have now been cut.

I mention make-up because I was struck by a throwaway statement in an article I read earlier this week about narcissism and the ice-bucket challenge. The article on the BBC Future website gives an interesting take on the role narcissism and performance play in modern altruism.

The writer Chris Baraniuk refers back to another social media craze this summer where women posted photos of themselves – shock, horror – without make-up, to raise funds for cancer research.

Baraniuk observes that “make-up remains de rigueur for women”, a statement which stopped me in my tracks. Could this really be true? And if so, how did I miss the memo? Was it only sent to English women, or Londoners perhaps?

This got me thinking about what make-up says about women. Is not wearing make-up a sign of liberation or laziness? I know of women who need to ‘put on their face’ before they venture into the outside world. But I’m inclined to think they are not the majority.

My grandmother used to keep lipstick by the front door and always applied a dash of pink to her lips before going out, even when going out meant trundling to the local shops with her walker at the age of 93. I’m more of a make-up-for-special-occasions gal myself.

But to get back to the main theme of the article, it did make me wonder what place bloggers have in this “culture of rampant narcissism in social media”.

Blogging is self-publishing in its simplest and most direct form. You don’t have to pitch your idea to anyone and wait for their approval. If you have something to say, an idea to share, if a tree fell down and you want it to be on the record – you just hit publish. And there is a nice sense of fulfilment with that. It’s instant and it’s all yours.

But, bearing in mind that there are two million blogposts published every day, most bloggers are dropping very small pebbles in a very large pond. Something tells me this social media niche might not be rewarding enough for narcissists.

Here’s a narcissism test for anyone who’s worried. ;)

Good things come in twos

My idea of heaven

My idea of heaven

I did say I wouldn’t post again until the novel was finished and I meant it. It’s been a long summer of some discontent, a lot of hard work, and a gradual brightening of the light at the end of the tunnel.

And now I’m here, out the other side. Still reluctant to use the word ‘finished’ in the same sentence as my novel, what I can say is that I have completed the most difficult draft so far. Thanks to wonderful challenging feedback from kind and generous readers, I hope I’ve managed to fix some of the weaknesses that were bogging down this manuscript.

The other good thing I discovered first thing this morning is that my blog has been shortlisted for the Irish Blog Awards, Diaspora category. I’m thrilled to be included in this list and look forward to reading through the other blogs as soon as I finish work today. Thanks again to fellow exile Niall McArdle for nominating me and to the judges for overlooking the fact that I was on a break.

Without the distraction of blogging for the past two months, I have been able to write every day and have harnessed the power of that rhythm.

A three-week holiday in Ireland also helped with the daily time-stealing challenge and the inspiration, as my book is set in Ireland. Anyone who was lucky enough to be in Ireland this summer will tell you that the weather was superb. I wanted the country to be at its best so that my Swiss family would experience the magic of an Irish summer. In fact I wanted them to be enchanted and to develop some of the feelings about the country that I have. For once the weather came up trumps.

The novel is back in the hands of two readers and I’m hoping that only small changes will be required from now on and that I will be able to declare September the month of submitting.

I’ll be posting soon again, about a fascinating meeting in Bern with award-winning Swiss-German writer Pedro Lenz and his Glaswegian translator Donal McLaughlin. Not only is McLaughlin from Glasgow (via Northern Ireland), he also writes in Glaswegian dialect. Can’t wait to review the result of this unique collaboration: Naw Much of a Talker.

Looking forward to connecting with everyone again and catching up with your summer stories.

It’s good to be back.

So, have you finished the novel yet?

This question kills me, even though I know it’s the obvious one to ask. The short answer is no. More than once I thought I had finished but it turned out I had only reached milestones along the way. The first draft took almost twelve months to the day. I have now been writing my first novel for two years, five months and forever.

My heart sank today when I heard it took veteran BBC journalist Kirsty Wark ten years to write her novel The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle. Ten years! She gave a talk at the Dalkey Book Festival in Dublin yesterday and I sent my spies along to find out what she had to say.

I’m curious to read her book, despite reading this bad review a few weeks ago, which was breathtakingly spiteful. The Irish Times reviewer actually said: ‘don’t give up the day job’.

http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/a-nice-fantasy-but-don-t-give-up-the-day-job-1.1777733

Wark started ten years ago but had to put the book to one side because of family commitments until her youngest started university. My youngest hasn’t started school yet. How long before I can find time?

Maeve Binchy addressed this issue in the first page of her book on writing, The Writers’ Club.

“Time doesn’t appear from nowhere. You have to make it, and that means giving up something else. Regularly. Like sleep, for example, or drinking or playing poker, or watching television, or window-shopping or just lounging about with your family.”

As it is I do regularly give things up for writing. But what if I’ve been giving up the wrong things?

The time has come to question where the writing blog fits in here. Would Maeve Binchy ever have finished Light a Penny Candle if she’d been blogging about it? I’ve published more than 70 posts over eighteen months, an average of 500 words per post. That’s a lot of words, half a novel in fact.

Without further ado, I hereby declare this blog temporarily suspended – normal service to be resumed when my novel is finished. I hope to connect again with fellow bloggers and followers of the site when the time is right.

Have a great summer folks!

ps. here is a link to Ashra’ Wish, a story I wrote for children which has just been published on a new children’s stories website.

http://www.shortkidstories.com/story/ashras-wish/

I'll be back.

I’ll be back.

The oldest profession in the world

Farmer-Kneeling-Picking-Dandelions

Just sharing my most hated cliché, narrowing as it does women’s myriad innovative roles over the millennia in hundreds of civilisations to the least interesting and freely-chosen job on the list. To prove my point, I’ve written a little scene set in the city-state of Zabala in the Sumer Civilisation in 3,500 BC. Call it anti-cliché fiction.

“I like the dress,” Namini said, reaching to feel a corner of the red and gold cloth, before embracing her friend with the Sumer evening greeting of three kisses.

“Thanks, I got it from a neighbour. She sells her own stuff and it’s not expensive,” Sulah answered, sitting down on a mat by the window.

“Not Fatiza?” Namini called from behind the bar where she was loading her tray with fresh drinks.

“Yes, that’s her name. Her mother and sister are weavers too.”

“I know the family. Lovely people. What can I get you?”

“Just a tea thanks, I’m exhausted. I’ve been transcribing a massive contract all day. Look at the blisters on my hands.”

Namini came over with the tea and inspected Sulah’s hands gently.

“They are working you too hard there. I don’t know how you put up with it.”

Sulah shrugged. “They pay well and I can live at home. It’s hard to find a job like that. You know my cousin Lamila, plays the lyre? She has to stay at the temple seven days a week. The ceremonies are endless, she says.”

“I know. Who’d be a musician? The only job to have in a temple is priestess. People waiting on you day and night, listening to your every word, I wouldn’t mind that.”

A group of customers came in and Namini’s smile brightened artificially as she sailed over to them. While she was getting their drinks, more people began to arrive, in pairs. The busy part of the day was beginning for Namini, just as Sulah could go home and relax.

Sulah saw a young girl with elaborately-braided hair come in and sit alone, her dress draped low over one shoulder. When Sulah looked again the girl had pulled her dress up over the knee to reveal strong brown thighs, the legs of a country girl. A man from the first group crossed the small room to join her, placing a coin in front of the girl before he sat down.

Trying not to stare, Sulah gathered up her things to leave. She slipped into the back room where Namini was filling bowls of dates and olives.

“Namini, is it possible there’s a woman selling her body in your tavern? I just saw a man offer money before he sat down with her.”

“Don’t worry Sulah, I know her. It’s a new thing some women are doing. You know it’s been a bad year for farmers in the west. She needs the money, has some debts to pay off for her parents. Better here than down by the city walls.”

Sulah frowned. “As long as you know what you’re doing. I’m off. See you soon.”

“See you pet.” Namini paused to unwind and repin her hair. “And by the way, you should speak to Mazana the midwife about your hands. She has a good selection of creams as well.”

“Where is she based?”

“Well, she moves around a lot, from baby to baby. Ask one of the women selling spices at the market, they’ll know where she is.”

“Thanks Namini. Have a good night … .”

On her way out Sulah cast one more glance at the girl with the braided hair who, realising she was being noticed, turned her head to the side, resting her elegant fingers under her chin in the classic pose of Tanta, the Goddess of Courage, but also, as every child in Zabala knew, the Goddess of Fear.

It was while I was researching an article recently for swissinfo.ch about prostitution and human trafficking in Switzerland that I realised how often this offensive cliché is still being used by fellow journalists. Can we move on please?

“Too much statement and not enough suggestion”

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This is what many writers are getting wrong, according to Irish short story writer Claire Keegan who passed through Bern this week. Keegan, a woman of strong convictions and deep thoughts, gave a talk and read from her award-winning story Foster.

I couldn’t believe my luck to hear that such a well-respected author was in town and that I could manage at the last minute to go along and listen to her. For Keegan, it is clear that writing is not something to be taken lightly. She spoke passionately about life, love and literature.

Foster is a story, about a poor young girl sent to live with more prosperous relatives for the summer. Written from the child’s point of view in the present tense, the story manages to convey that gulf that exists between children and adults and the disadvantage that children have in their inability to understand what’s going on in the adult world around them. It’s all the more poignant in Foster because the girl comes from a neglectful home and she is being looked after in a loving way for the first time.

As Keegan pointed out: “Love can come from anywhere, it doesn’t matter where.” The author sees herself as a critic of her society. Foster, set in 1970s rural Ireland, is in part a commentary on the plight of families forced, because of religious dictates on contraception, to have more children than they could love.

As I writer I was naturally curious to hear what Keegan, who has lectured in creative writing, had to say about the craft of writing.

The first thing that surprised me was that she goes through about thirty (!) drafts before she considers her stories finished. More proof that writing is rewriting!

During this process, Keegan does not give her work to anyone else for feedback, although she did admit she would like to have someone who would look at her manuscripts as closely as she does but from another perspective.

She explained that having spent decades reading attentively and developing her own taste, she trusts her own taste. A good place to be.

On the subject of what new writers are getting wrong, Keegan was very precise. In her view there isn’t enough priority given to the story, to the point that the story can be completely buried by the writing or even missing altogether.

Keegan is quite a purist when it comes to storytelling and confessed that she mostly preferred reading “dead authors”. For it to be a story something has to happen in a defined space of time, something irreversible that the character would take back if they could, she said.

Nowadays there is “too much statement and not enough suggestion”. Readers have to endure pages of analysis about the character before they even have a chance to go through something with them. In other words the analysis has not been earned.

Keegan is a great believer in “turning down the sound” and observing what people do with their hands and feet and eyes. That’s where the truth is, she said, and that is what she writes about. She won’t tell us someone is miserable and proceed to tell us why over many pages. She will show that misery and the context and let the reader reach their own conclusions.

Finally I liked what Keegan had to say about the elegance and efficiency going hand in hand in good writing. Not something that can be achieved in every blog post, but a good standard to aspire to in fiction.

The event was held under the auspices of the Swiss-British Society, Bern and SATE (the Swiss Association of Teachers of English).

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