The dream gig continues … I’ve been meeting acclaimed English-language authors based in Switzerland for a series of interviews for my former employer, swissinfo.ch. The profile of Susan Jane Gilman, best-selling author of The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street and three other books, was published this week.
Susan Jane is as entertaining in person as she is on the page. This photo was taken in Morges on Lake Geneva where we had to laugh (and buy ice cream) when the first thing we saw on the waterfront was an ice cream stand. It was just the sort of place the heroine in Susan Jane’s novel would have owned once upon a time in New York.
Morges is a lovely spot and location of the annual Le Livre sur les Quais literary festival which is held in September. I’ve heard the festival will feature Irish authors this year and can’t wait to find out who’s in the line-up. Susan Jane is also a fan of Irish literature, first inspired by her English teacher in high school, the legendary Frank Mc Court.
Susan Jane is teaching at the Zurich Writers Workshop (ZWW) next weekend (May 12-14) along with Jill Alexander Essbaum, author of Hausfrau, a book set in Switzerland which made a big impression on me. Two very high calibre writers. That event may well be booked out but, if you live within reach of Zurich, ZWW is worth following for its excellent instruction programme.
Here again, in case you missed it in the first paragraph, is the link to my interview with Susan Jane Gilman. And if you are catching up on this series, don’t forget Jason Donald, author of Dalila (2017) and Choke Chain (2009) who was the subject of the first swissinfo profile. The next interview will be published on Thursday May 11th. Watch this space!
I am telling you this in good time. Producing a big Christmas feast for a group of people is a lot of work, and if all that work is left to one person, something is not right. Anne Enright’s latest book, The Green Road, tells the story of four siblings and their widowed mother in the lead up to a long overdue Christmas reunion.
Because the mother has opted out of the difficult parts of life, and three of the siblings live away from their native County Clare, and also happen to be completely self-absorbed, the task of preparing the Christmas dinner falls to the most reliable sister with the least glamorous life, Constance. No need to tell you that turns out to be a thankless task. Here she is doing the dreaded Christmas grocery shopping:
The next morning, she went early into Ennis. It was 10 a.m. on Christmas Eve and the supermarket was like the Apocalypse, people grabbing without looking, and things fallen in the aisles. But there was no good time to do this, you just had to get through it. Constance pushed her trolley to the vegetable section: celery, carrots, parsnips for Dessie, who liked them. Sausage and sage for the stuffing, an experimental bag of chestnuts, vacuum packed. Constance bought a case of Prosecco on special offer to wrap and leave on various doorsteps and threw in eight frozen pizzas in case the kids rolled up with friends. Frozen berries. Different ice cream. She got wine, sherry, whiskey, fresh nuts, salted nuts, crisps, bags and bags of apples, two mangoes, a melon, dark cherries for the fruit salad, root ginger, fresh mint, a wooden crate of satsumas, the fruit cold and promising sweet, each one with its own sprig of green, dark leaves. She got wrapping paper, red paper napkins, Sellotape, and – more out of habit, now the children were grown – packs and packs of batteries, triple A, double A, a few Cs. She took five squat candles in cream-coloured beeswax to fill the cracked hearth in the good room at Ardeevin, when no fire was lit this ten years past, and two long rolls of simple red baubles to fill the gaps on her mother’s tree. She went back for more sausages because she had forgotten about breakfast. Tomatoes. Bacon. Eggs. She went back to the dairy section for more cheese. Back to the fruit aisle for seedless grapes. Back to the biscuit aisle for water biscuits. She searched high and low for string to keep the cloth on the pudding, stopped at the delicatessen counter for pesto, chicken liver pate, tubs of olives. She got some ready-cooked drumsticks to keep people going. At every corner, she met a neighbour, an old friend, they rolled their eyes and threw Christmas greetings, and no one thought her rude for not stopping to converse. …
Constance pays, pushes the trolley down to the carpark, unloads the shopping into the boot, and remembers Brussels sprouts. What can she do? Everyone knows Christmas is an all-or-nothing occasion.
‘Oh what the hell,’ said Constance. She slammed the boot shut and turned her sore feet back to the walkway and the horrors of the vegetable section. The over to the spices to get nutmeg, which was the way Rosaleen liked her Brussels, with unsalted butter. And it was a good thing she went back up, because she had no cranberry sauce either – unbelievably – no brandy for the brandy butter, no honey to glaze the ham. It was as though she had thrown the whole shop in the trolley and bought nothing. She had no big foil for the turkey. Constance grabbed some potato salad, coleslaw, smoked salmon, mayonnaise, more tomatoes, litre bottled of fizzy drinks for the kids, kitchen roll, cling film, extra toilet paper, extra bin bags. She didn’t even look at the bill after another 15 minutes in the queue behind some woman who had forgotten flowers – as she announced – and abandoned her groceries to get them, after which Constance did exactly the same thing, fetching two bouquets of strong pink lilies because they had no white left. She was on the way home before she remembered potatoes, thought about pulling over to the side of the road and digging some out of a field, imagined herself with her hands in the earth, scrabbling around for a few spuds.
Lifting her head to howl.
You get the picture. Don’t be Constance this Christmas. The passage is also a commentary on the gluttony and excess that gripped Ireland during the economic boom, probably still the norm for many people.
The Green Road is one of about 25 books I read this year but I’m afraid it was almost too deliberately well-crafted for me. I enjoyed many of the sections as stand-alone pieces, particularly the scenes in Africa and New York. Less so the hammed-up Irish scenes. Ultimately the odd character of the mother at the centre of it all removed all the urgency of the climax as I didn’t care enough what happened to her or her spoilt/neglected kids.
Goodreads puts together a list of the books you’ve read each year, and looking back on my titles, I can give you my favourites. Best memoir: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou Best non-fiction: Sugar in the Blood, Andrea Stuart Best novel: It’s a tie between Transatlantic by Colum McCann, The Uninvited by Liz Jensen (seriously disturbing), Nutshell by Ian McEwan (just finished, wow) and The Summer Guest by Alison Anderson.
Walking into the crowded authors’ tent at Le livre sur les quais (The book on the quays) literary festival in Morges on Saturday, my first thought was that I had entered a cattle market of books and authors. The festival now boasts a roll call of more than 300 authors. Could this be too much of a good thing?
Le livre sur les quais is only in its seventh year but has achieved significant national and international recognition, attracting big names and 40,000 visitors. Although mainly a festival of French-language literature, the festival has an excellent English programme and star-studded guest list (Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train).
Morges is a pretty little town on Lake Geneva, a short commute from the city of Lausanne. On the five-minute walk down from the train station to the lake shore, you glimpse large courtyards to the left and right, surrounded by low-rise apartment blocks. This is urban living at its best. There is an attractive old centre, and when you cross the main street, Grande rue, any of the side streets lead down to the lake shore and stunning views of the water and the French Alps to the south.
The authors’ tent is right on the water’s edge, an impossibly long marquee with the sides left open on the lake side in the hopes of a breeze. Continuous lines of tables run along the ‘walls’ on each side of the tent, facing several inner rectangular ‘islands’ of tables. It was a hot day on Saturday and the temperature in the tent was sweltering.
The authors sit behind these tables, each with a pile of books on display. The presence of so many authors in one place, selling their books (not that they handle money, you take the books from the table and pay at a till) creates a feeling that they are vying for attention.
Maybe I was projecting, the way I do with cows too, but some of the authors looked a little forlorn and overwhelmed. According to the programme there were 348 guests attending the festival, authors, poets, translators.
For the visitors, the wonderful thing about the set-up was that you could walk up to an author you admire and strike up a conversation. This accessibility is one of the great attractions of the festival. I went straight to the island of English-speaking authors island. The authors come and go participating or attending various talks in venues around the town or on pleasure boats!
I was delighted to meet Alison Anderson, author of The Summer Guest, which I had been reading on the train journey to Morges (big disadvantage of ebooks – you can’t get them signed!). The novel is a fictionalised account of a real summer spent by Chekhov and his family in an idyllic country setting in Sumy in Eastern Ukraine. The story is told partly through the diary of a blind woman who became close to the great writer, made poignant by the knowledge that she is dying, and partly from the perspective of the present day translator of the diary. Anderson gives a fascinating account of her research trip to Sumy here.
It was a day of discoveries and striking up connections with people. One talk I attended was a panel discussion about historical fiction with Rosie Thomas, Petina Gappah (amazing speaker from Zimbabwe), John Boyne and Anne Korkeakivi. John Boyne, best known as the author of Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, talked about the nit-pickers who come to him with minor factual corrections. He also confessed he checked one-star Amazon reviews to see what people did not like about his books.
“There are no mistakes in fiction. Once you put a made-up character into a historical setting, it’s corrupted. The story you’re telling comes first.” I am really looking forward to reading my new copy of Boyne’s latest novel, A History of Loneliness, his first novel with an Irish setting.
My visit to Le Livre sur les quais was a very enriching day for me, but one where I was glad to be the observer and not the observed. But soon it will be my turn to sit at a table and talk about my book. After a career of asking questions, I’m not sure how easy it will be to have the roles reversed. This month I will be giving my first interviews about my book, and two talks at the Geneva Expo on October 2 (more info here).
One more thing for any of you who are on Goodreads. The Naked Swiss is now listed there and you can mark it as ‘want to read’ if you like, and/or follow my author page.
Have you attended any literary festivals this year? What do you think is the best formula? I know a huge amount of work goes into these events and I think they are fantastic for readers. I hope authors feel the same. Not only did I come away with these great books, but I was able to meet or listen to four out of the five authors.
When I heard Rose Tremain’s new book, The Gustav Sonata, was set in Switzerland, I could not wait to get my hands on it. Knowing she had a particular gift for evoking time and place, I had to see what she would do with the challenging setting of Switzerland during the Second World War.
From the first page, I was struck by how exquisite this novel is. Tremain delivers on all three fronts – story, characters and writing. The first of three parts is written from the point of view of the protagonist, Gustav, as a boy. I wanted to rush in and rescue this darling child. The middle part shows us how his ill-fated parents met each other and drifted towards their ruin. The third ‘movement’ brings us close to the present day, where we meet Gustav again in late middle age, the proprietor of a hotel and lonely heart.
Tremain fits so much human frailty and so many wrong turnings in these pages, inspiring compassion for every character, even those with awful failings. At the same time, she captures the atmosphere of small-town Swiss society and has an amazing touch for the environment and cadence of language, so much so that you feel you could be reading a Swiss work in translation. No chisel marks are visible on her sentences – they seem to have come into existence ready-made and perfect.
There are so many stories in one here, set against one of the biggest stories of all, the persecution and genocide of the Jews in the Nazi Germany. The character of Gustav’s father, an assistant police chief, is inspired by a real Swiss police chief, Paul Grüniger who risked his career by falsifying documents to admit 3,000 Jewish refugees into Switzerland illegally. Like Gustav’s father, Erich Perle, Grüniger was dismissed from his position and disgraced for this crime.
The Gustav Sonata is a story of a man who, by being true to his own humanity, will lose everything he holds dear. It is also a story of a lovely boy and his troubled mother who cannot see the treasure she has in him, and the story of a mismatched couple who fail at the first test. Through it all runs the special relationship and lifelong friendship between two sensitive boys, Gustav from a poor and loveless home and the much more privileged Anton.
One chapter in my non-fiction book examines the role of Switzerland during the Second World War, which has been severely criticised over the years. Switzerland’s record in taking in Jewish refugees during the war is mixed. Although it was one of the main routes out of Nazi territory for several years and thousands of Jews were able to transit through Switzerland or find refuge there, the border was closed against Jews in their greatest hour of need. Worst of all, in 1938 the Swiss asked the Germans to stamp the passports of Jewish citizens with a red letter J so that they could identify and turn back likely refugees without having to resort to imposing a visa requirement on all Germans. The chief of the aliens police Heinrich Rothmund welcomed the move, maintaining that he did not want Switzerland to be “swamped” by people unable to assimilate to the Swiss way of life. Doesn’t that sound familiar?
Swiss President Kaspar Villiger issued a public apology for the treatment of Jewish refugees in 1995: “There is no doubt in my mind that our policy has brought guilt upon us. By introducing the so-called Jewish stamp, Germany was complying with a request made by Switzerland. At that time in an excessively narrow interpretation of our country’s interest, we made a wrong decision. The Federal Council deeply regrets this, and apologises for it, in the full knowledge that such a failure is ultimately inexcusable.”
It has to be remembered that most other European countries and the United States either imposed strict quotas on Jewish refugees or tried to restrict any Jewish immigration before and during the first half of the war. There was a change of heart but it came too late to save most European Jews.
To get back to The Gustav Sonata, and an interesting note about how novelists get their ideas. While I was reading, I was struck by how familiar the circumstances of the Perle family seemed. And then I read the acknowledgments where Tremain mentions the debt she owes to Mitya New’s 1997 book, Switzerland Unwrapped: Exposing the Myths. I came across this book during my research for my book on Switzerland. It was written by New after some years working as a Reuters journalist in Zurich. The book is a series of interviews with key Swiss individuals whose views and experiences shed light on Swiss society, narrated in the first person if I remember rightly. It is a great selection. One of the New’s subjects is Ruth Rhoduner, the daughter of Police Chief Grüniger. There is also an interview with a leading banker and a woman from a Swiss Yenish (gypsy) family who was forcible taken into care. And, another theme that feeds into the novel, a description of a day out at a Schwingen festival, a traditional Swiss wrestling sport.
Tremain’s novel is set in the fictional town of Mazlingen. I’d love to know how much time she spent in Switzerland researching this book. Did she stay in an earnest little hotel like Gustav Perle’s and go for walks through sleepy valleys dotted with cherry trees? Considering that the last novel I read by Tremain was set in New Zealand during the gold rush of the 1860s, it is possible she was able to rely purely on good research and her gift for recreating a distant place and time.
I really enjoyed how Tremain portrayed the ordinariness of Switzerland – the everyday food and drink, modest homes, plain streets and dull jobs that are hardly ever seen by tourists. Recently, I’ve been having some fun on Twitter, inviting people to post pictures using the hashtag #ordinaryswitzerland, just to remind ourselves and others that we don’t live in a spectacular film set. We tend to automatically post pretty views of our surroundings on social media. It’s been refreshing keeping an eye out for the less lovely views and watching others do the same.
Looking forward to hearing your reaction to The Gustav Sonata (or Tremain’s other novels) or any of the other themes I’ve touched on today. Have a great start to the summer!
A simple effective way to banish clutter forever. This is the beguiling promise on the cover of Marie Kondo’s book about tidying. It’s big in Japan. But not only in Japan. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying has been published in more than 30 countries and has sold 1.5 million copies.
A colleague recommended the book to me when he was in between jobs. A bit of a hoarder, he said it really helped him gain control over his environment and achieve clarity. Kondo makes great claims about the transformative power of tidying. I had to find out more.
One of the reasons I love writing is because I have discovered it is something I can see through to the end. I get the satisfaction that only comes from completing a job properly. In other areas I’m not so good at getting across the finish line.
Kondo starts by telling us that there is no use in partial tidying. It’s an all-or-nothing deal. You have to follow her method through to the end, tidying your possessions in every category and every room – every single object – until the job is completely done. Only then can you reap the benefits of the new better life that has eluded you thus far.
I was intrigued by this idea of a better life being just out of reach. Better lifestyle is more accurate. Like that inadequate feeling you get from looking through an Ikea catalogue. I went to Ikea this week but my house is just as cluttered and uncoordinated as it was before I went!
To be fair, Kondo is not saying you can achieve your dreams by buying more objects. She wants us to work hard to reduce the burden of unnecessary objects. True to form, I only made a half-baked attempt at the Kondo method. I will not be granted access to that better life. But I do have her to thank for a massive clear out of my wardrobe.
The Kondo test for whether or not to keep an object is very simple. You have to hold it and ask yourself if it sparks joy. Joy-sparking objects in; non joy-sparking objects out. Now obviously this test doesn’t apply to the tin opener but can be used for almost anything non-essential, she says.
Even though I won’t get to live my other perfect life, I thought it would be fun to list some of those unfulfilled aspirations. In my other life:
I use the juicer I bought to make juices every morning with fresh spinach
I volunteer for several charities.
I have a low meat diet and can think of tasty new vegetarian dishes all the time.
The front path is swept and leaves no longer blow into the hall when I open the door.
I have a short-haired dog or no dog (as opposed to a very hairy collie).
I make homemade ketchup.
My children enjoy dried fruit as a snack.
I let my hair go naturally grey and it really suits me.
I can ski better than my children.
I don’t have a car.
I buy farm produce.
I go horse riding once a week, with galloping.
I banish clutter forever.
May all your troubles be little ones, as they say. So, are you a clutter clogs or a tidy terror? What super lifestyle are you missing out on? I’d love to hear your secret wishes …
I’m just getting over a bad dose of reading fever (feeling better now, thanks) and thought I’d share a few short reviews of the books that have been keeping me glued to the screen and page over the past couple of weeks. It’s an eclectic mix so there should be something for everyone here.
The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
Each chapter is written from the point of view of a different character, all connected in some way to an English-language newspaper in Rome over four decades. It’s funny, it’s tragic, it’s superbly plotted. The setting is lovely. Loss and loneliness feature prominently and the relationships are complex and fascinating. Rachman has a wonderful satirical touch which he applies lightly, poking fun in the right places. I think I’ve found my book of the year. Thanks for the recommendation Nicki Chen. Anyone who has worked in journalism will get a special kick out the novel but it’s in no way written for a clique. I’ll be pushing this hard at my book club next month. Going to start buying votes now.
His overarching goal at the paper is indolence, to publish as infrequently as possible, and to sneak away when no one is looking. He is realizing these professional ambitions spectacularly.
He opens a manila folder so that, if anyone happens past, he can flutter sheets and mutter “Preparedness!” which seems to put most people off.
The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt
I borrowed this book from a friend after attending a scintillating talk by the author in Zurich in May. I’ll admit I was a little put off by the heavy intellectual fabric of the novel. The paperback travelled with me to Ireland and back, by car and ferry – unread. I finally started it a month ago and did what is normally unheard of for me – I alternated it with other books. Indeed The Blazing World is probably to blame for this bout of reading fever as I kept fleeing to other books for light relief.
That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it, in the way you might enjoy trekking through the jungle with a machete. I loved the premise of the disillusioned old artist who tries to hit back at the New York art establishment by colluding with three male artists to pass off her work as theirs. Like The Imperfectionists the book is polyphonic, written in the voices of about a dozen different characters. The different accounts are assembled and presented in the style of an academic work, complete with footnotes (I’ll be a long time getting over those footnotes), cleverly building to a full revelation of what went wrong with Harriet Burden’s plan. I’m not sure I liked the format but this book, but the questions it raises about ageing, gender roles, art and psychological scars will resonate for a long time.
I want to blaze and rumble and roar.
I want to hide and weep and hold on to my mother.
But so do we all.
Trespass by Rose Tremain
Something completely different. I don’t even remember how I came into possession of this book but I do remember starting it and abandoning it last year. Last week, burning with fever, I found it in among the children’s books and rescued it. Since I finished the book I looked up Rose Trumain and it turns out she is a prolific prize-winning writer, quite the maestro. Set in the arid Cévennes region of France, this cracking whydunnit is a dark portrait of the terror of early old age, unhealthy sibling ties and psychological scars galore. She uses the landscape brilliantly to help build the atmosphere of oppression and dread. And oh the malice that the characters feel for each other! Not to be read by anyone considering a move to warmer climes to buy that dreamy old stone house surrounded by wizened vines. This book will kill the dream.
A Better Man by Leah McLaren
I was hooked when I heard about the plot of this book in a review on Anne Goodwin’s blog. Man wants to divorce his wife and mother of their twin children. Realises it will cost too much because she has become a deeply dissatisfied (and neglected) stay-at-home mother. Decides to fake a complete change in his behavior to being loving and supportive to make things more advantageous for the divorce. Ends up becoming a better man by behaving like one. But will it save the marriage? I couldn’t sympathise with either of the two spoilt main characters (he runs a groovy adverstising agency, she is an ex-lawyer turned neurotic mother with full-time nanny and chip on shoulder). This was ok because we were mostly watching them suffer. It felt a bit like writing by numbers but I kept reading to see where she would take the story. The twins featured quite a lot but I didn’t feel the child characters came off the page. The perfect South American nanny was also a cardboard cut-out. Despite all the negative things I’m saying it was very readable. Proof of the power of a strong central story idea.
In the Sea there are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda
This book should be compulsory reading for every citizen of Europe over the age of ten. It is a fictional treatment of the true story of Enaiatollah, a young man who made a remarkable five-year journey from Afghanistan to Italy where he finally managed to claim political asylum aged fifteen. The author met Enaiatollah and was so intrigued by his story he wanted to write it as a novel. If you want to know how it feels to be an illegal immigrant risking your life crossing seas and borders, this book will bring that experience alive like no other. So compelling. It also gives valuable insight into the push factors driving the undocumented ever onwards – misery upon misery in the transit countries.
All in all a highly enjoyable run of reading. I’m glad the fever struck when it did. In other reading news, I received an e-reader as a gift earlier this year and I’m very happy with the transition. The score for the above list: E-reader versus paper book – 3: 2. And I finally joined Goodreads, a great resource for readers and writers. Hope to see some of you there.
On the blog today, it is my great pleasure to introduce the English writer Anne Goodwin, author of Sugar and Snails, whose journey to publication I have been following with great interest since we first connected through blogging two years ago. In this guest post, Anne shows it’s not always easy to distill the essence of your own story.
So, you’re lying on your deathbed (hopefully, many years from now) and an angel comes in with a shorthand notebook and retractable pencil. He’s been commissioned to write your obituary, but first he wants you to tell him what your life was about. Could you tell him? Would the sentence even make sense?
A novel isn’t the same as a life. A novel has structure. A novel has plot. But it can be just as difficult to reduce the essence of a novel to a single headline as it can be to sum up a life.
So I identified strongly with Clare’s post couple of years ago, What’s the book about? Yet some might imagine I should’ve known better. Unlike Clare, I wasn’t in the process of getting acquainted with my first novel. I was a few months into the submission circus, with some encouraging feedback from agents alongside the stack of rejections. Shouldn’t I have known what my book was about?
Of course I had my pitch. I had my carefully-crafted one-page synopsis. But these were summaries of what happened; what my novel was about lurked somewhere underneath.
In my initial attempts at synopsis writing, I’d finished off with a list of the themes. But somewhere along the line I was advised to drop the intangibles and focus on the fictional “facts”.
But no-one’s going to want to publish a rambling novel without focus. When submitting to small publishers, I still did my best to present a coherent story. But this had a surprising downside, of which others should beware.
Sugar and Snails is a midlife coming-of-age story about a woman who’s kept her past identity a secret for thirty years. (An “about” sentence I’ve found only recently, partly through attending a media training day run by the Society of Authors.) The catalyst for change is her meeting with a man who takes a fancy to her at a dinner party and their on-off relationship provides the skeleton of the contemporary strand. Now, we all understand the romance genre; it’s hardwired with the fairytales we heard at our mothers’ knees. Somewhere along the line, without a conscious decision, boy-meets girl provided my novel a ready-made structure to contain the more amorphous story of a woman’s journey to self-acceptance.
Now, I knew Sugar and Snails wasn’t a romance. My publisher knew it wasn’t. My therapist certainly knew it wasn’t. Even friends and family who hadn’t yet read it but had listened patiently to me babbling about it knew Sugar and Snails wasn’t a romance. But when it came to writing the blurb to go on the back cover, that’s exactly how we framed it. In the emails shuttling back and forth in an attempt to perfect the words and punctuation, neither I nor my editor recognised we were stuck in the romance mode. It was as if we were engaged in a folie à deux.
Okay, we might have come to our senses without external intervention. The wider Inspired Quill team might have refused to give it the go-ahead. But, for me, it was only through the happenstance of consulting a few friends on a disagreement on some minutiae of the wording, that I recognised how close we’d come to mis-selling the book. Although a lucky escape, it was a painful moment to have this exposed. I was supposed to be the wordsmith, not my friends.
The romance element still gets a mention in the rewritten version, but it’s background to the larger story of a woman learning to live with herself:
The past lingers on, etched beneath our skin …
At fifteen, Diana Dodsworth took the opportunity to radically alter the trajectory of her life, and escape the constraints of her small-town existence. Thirty years on, she can’t help scratching at her teenage decision like a scabbed wound.
To safeguard her secret, she’s kept other people at a distance … until Simon Jenkins sweeps in on a cloud of promise and possibility. But his work is taking him to Cairo, and he expects Di to fly out for a visit. She daren’t return to the city that changed her life; nor can she tell Simon the reason why.
Sugar and Snails takes the reader on a poignant journey from Diana’s misfit childhood, through tortured adolescence to a triumphant mid-life coming-of-age that challenges preconceptions about bridging the gap between who we are and who we feel we ought to be.
Two weeks now since publication, I’m having fun playing around with what my novel is about. Writing guest posts and completing Q&A’s for my mammoth blog tour lets me explore my novel from different angles and the reader reviews reflect it back to me in interesting ways. I can’t begin to describe how wonderful, moving and humbling it is to have my novel not only read, but thought about, even discussed.
Yet there are still points at which I reach for that single-sentence summary. Print journalists and radio broadcasters need their soundbites and, grateful for the coverage, I try to give them just that. But I relish the opportunity to give a more discursive version of my story.
Thanks to Clare and her blog readers for indulging that need in me here.
Anne Goodwin writes fiction, short and long, and blogs about reading and writing, with a peppering of psychology. Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, was published last month by Inspired Quill. Catch up on her website: annethology or on Twitter @Annecdotist.
Death comes to all, even fictional characters, but it is a particular challenge to write about death through the perspective and diminishing senses of the dying character. In previous blogposts I’ve written about dastardly husbands, childbirth and bad marriages in fiction so it seems death has a natural place in this series.
Before I get into the fictional accounts of dying, there is one very interesting factual account of dying, or the feeling of being close to death, that I’d like to share. It comes from a radio interview I heard two years ago when I was living for a short time in Dublin. Irish radio is full of these kinds of gems.
The woman being interviewed was an eminent surgeon in her early fifties with no children. She described a time when she had been seriously ill with cancer. Her life at that point was hectic because on top of her regular work she had taken on other charity commitments abroad.
A fiercely independent woman, she had never had to rely on anyone for help before. That was the first big transition she had to make. When things had got very bad, she said she remembered lying in her hospital bed, weak and completely helpless and being certain that she was going to die. She felt unmoved about the prospect of her life being over and not in the least alarmed. ‘So this is how all my problems are going to be solved,’ she remembered thinking with a feeling of relief.
Life does present us with a seemingly unending chain of problems, big and small, and how surprising it is when the chain suddenly turns out to have an end and the end is now. The individual who realizes they are dying may well have time to rationalize what’s happening before the lights go out for ever. This process is no more beautifully expressed than in the dying moments of William Stoner at home alone in John Williams’ novel Stoner.
“A kind of joy came upon him, as if borne in on a summer breeze. He dimly recalled that he had been thinking of failure – as if it mattered. It seemed to him now that such thoughts were mean, unworthy of what his life had been. Dim presences gathered at the edge of his consciousness; he could not see them, but he knew that they were there, gathering their forces toward a kind of palpability he could not see or hear. He was approaching them, he knew; but there was no need to hurry. He could ignore them if he wished; he had all the time there was.
There was a softness around him, and a languor crept upon his limbs. A sense of his own identity came upon him with a sudden force, and he felt the power of it. He was himself, and he knew what he had been.”
I’ve just finished A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson, which I read on the recommendation of fellow blogger Safia Moore (based in the United Arab Emirates), a great supporter of new writers and recent winner of the Bath Short Story Prize with her poignant story That Summer.
This novel was a delight to read – moving, entertaining, thought-provoking. You can check out Safia’s review here and then please read the book too because all of life is in it and there is so much to enjoy. The main character is called Teddy and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal his death scene here because the author makes it clear early on in the story that he lives to know his grandchildren.
Moments left, Teddy thought. A handful of heartbeats. That was what life was. A heartbeat followed by a heartbeat. A breath followed by a breath. One moment followed by another moment and then there was a last moment. Life was as fragile as a bird’s heartbeat, fleeting as the bluebells in the wood. It didn’t matter, he realized, he didn’t mind, he was going where millions had gone before and where millions would follow after. He shared his fate with the many.
And now. This moment. This moment was infinite. He was part of the infinite. The tree and the rock and the water. The rising of the sun and the running of the deer. Now.
This next one is a spoiler so if you want to read Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga, skip ahead to the end. The story, told in the multiple first person, is set in Mumbai and revolves around residents of an apartment block faced with an offer they cannot refuse by a ruthless property developer. In the end the neighbours turn against each other and the story concludes with the murder of one of their number, Yogesh Murthy, who is first badly beaten and then thrown from the roof.
Now, when he opened his eyes, he could not tell if he were dead or alive; these men seemed to be demons, though kindly, who were forcing his body to budge from some place between life and death where it was stuck.
And this was because he was neither good nor bad enough; and neither strong nor weak enough. He had lost his hands; he had lost his legs; he could not speak. Yet everything he had to do was right here, in his head. He thought of Guarav, his son, his living flesh. ‘Help me,’ he said.
And then he realized that the thing that was blocking his passage was cleared, and he was falling; his body began its short earthly flight – which it completed almost instantaneously – before Yogesh Murthy’s soul was released for its much longer flight over the oceans of the other world.
There are other notable dying moments that come to mind, such as the death scene in One Day by David Nichols which I thought was very movingly written, and the heart-wrenching drowning scene from The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell where the character fights for her life through the growing realization that she will be absent from all the future important moments of her child’s life.
OK, I’ll stop there. I hope I haven’t depressed anyone with these notes on dying. Can you think of any other memorable dying scenes that deserve a mention here?
Coming up on the blog later this week I will have my first ever guest post, from new author Anne Goodwin. Keep an eye out for Anne who is on a blog tour to coincide with the launch of her novel Sugar and Snails. My copy has been dispatched so I will tell you more about the book as soon as possible.
Births, marriages, deaths. These are the building blocks of stories. But what does it take to write a good childbirth scene? Is it even necessary to describe how a fictional baby comes into the world? Not always, I would say. But sometimes, as shown by the examples below, the birth is much more than a biological event. It is an important driver of the story which has an impact on how the characters behave later on. We have to be there with these women in their hour of need.
There is a short story in Annie Proulx’s 2008 collection Fine Just the Way It Is called Them Old Cowboy Songs which contains one of the most tragic birth scenes imaginable. The mother is a teenage girl living alone in a cabin in a remote part of Wyoming in 1885 (were there any non-remote parts of Wyoming at that time? I’m not sure). Her young husband Archie has gone off on his last cattle drive before the birth, hoping to be back in time, having asked a neighbour to check in occasionally on Rose.
The next morning was cold and sleety and her back ached; she wished for the heat of summer to return. She staggered when she walked and it didn’t seem worthwhile to make coffee. She drank water and stared at the icy spicules sliding down the window glass. Around midmorning the backache increased, working itself into a slow rhythm. It dawned on her very slowly that the baby was not waiting until September. By afternoon the backache was an encircling python and she could do nothing but pant and whimper, the steady rattle of rain dampening her moaning call for succor. She wriggled out of her heavy dress and put on her oldest nightgown. The pain increased to waves of cramping agony that left her gasping for breath, and on and on, the day fading into night, the rain torn away by wind, the dark choking hours eternal. Another dawn came sticky with the return of heat and still her raw loins could not deliver the child. On the fourth afternoon, voiceless from calling for Archie, her mother, Tom Ackler, Tom Ackler’s cat, from screaming imprecations at all of them, at god, any god, then at the river ducks and the weasel, to any entity that might hear, the python relaxed its grip and slid off the bloody bed, leaving her spiralling down in plum-colored mist.
There follows a heart-rending scene where Rose crawls out of the cabin with her stillborn baby wrapped in a dish towel and tries to dig a grave with a spoon. I won’t say any more.
At the risk of mentioning Lionel Shriver once too often in this blog, I have to include an extract from the birth chapter in We Need to Talk about Kevin because the savage eloquence of Eva, writing here to her husband Franklin, is so remarkable.
So I made an effort, at which point I had to recognize that I’d been resisting the birth. Whenever the enormous mass approached that tiny canal, I’d been sucking it back. Because it hurt. It hurt a whole lot. In the New School course, they drummed into you that the pain was good, you were supposed to go with it, push into the pain, and only on my back did I contemplate what retarded advice this was. Pain, good? I was overcome with contempt. In fact, I never told you this before, but the emotion on which I fastened in order to push beyond a critical threshold was loathing. I despised being spread out like some farm exhibit with strangers gawking between my canted knees. I detested Dr. Rhinestein’s pointed, ratlike little face and her brisk, censorious manner. I hated myself for ever having agreed to this humiliating theatre, when I was fine before and right at this moment I could have been in France.
In some countries, one in four babies is now being delivered by caesarian section and yet it’s not often you come across a description of a surgical birth. Maggie O’Farrell has one in her 2010 novel The Hand That First Held Mine. The birth is important in the book because things go drastically wrong just after this scene and the mother, Elina, spends most of the book recovering from the shock.
She could feel them, the two doctors, rummaging about inside her, like people who had lost something at the bottom of a suitcase. She knew it ought to hurt, it ought to hurt like hell, but it didn’t. The anaesthetic washed coolly down and then up her spine, breaking like a wave on the back of her head. There was a green canvas screen bisecting her body. She could hear the doctors murmuring to each other, could see the tops of their heads, could feel their hands in her innards. Ted was nearby, at her left, perched on a stool. And there was a great heave and suck and she almost cried out, what are you doing, before she realised, before she heard the sharp, angry cry, surprisingly loud in the hushed room, before she heard the anaesthetist, behind her, saying a boy. Elina repeated this word to herself as she stared ahead at the tiled ceiling. Boy. A boy. Then she spoke to Ted. Go with him, she said, go with the baby.
There are various other flashbacks of the birth as Elina tries to piece together what happened and come to terms with it. The other option is to skip the technicalities of the birth altogether, as Mary Costello does in Academy Street.
The pain struck at dawn. Willa came. In the hospital foyer her waters broke. She looked down at her drenched shoes and began to cry.
That evening when it was all over she thought she had scaled Everest, stood at its peak, exhilarated.
What, that’s it?
Actually there is a little more. Costello continues:
The next morning the enormity of it all hit her. She had brought forth life, rendered human something from almost nothing, and this power, this ability to create, overwhelmed her.
She did not take to the child. The light down on his skin resembled fur. She could not bear to touch the head, the unknitted bones of his crown. She thought of him as half-hatched, not quite finished. She was not in her right mind. Her body had been riven open, pummelled, her innards displaced. A disgust at her physical self took hold, at the engorged breasts, the bleeding. I am a cow, she thought. But cows are good mothers.
Nine and five years on I still remember the births of my own children in forensic detail and I remember feeling an urgent need in the early weeks and months to tell the story as often as I could (hopefully to a willing audience). Telling the story is a way of fully understanding and celebrating what has happened. It is too big an experience to fit into one day.
What about you? Do you think it’s desirable for authors to write detailed fictional accounts of labour? Have you ever written a childbirth scene or read one that stayed with you?
Imagine a struggling writer standing over his kitchen sink burning page after page of handwritten manuscripts because he doesn’t want any record of “these travesties” to remain on earth.
That’s what’s Donal Ryan did with seven or eight (!) novels and one hundred (!) short stories before he became Ireland’s most successful debut author with the release of The Spinning Heart in 2012. I heard this account from Ryan yesterday evening at a reading in Zurich Literaturhaus. His honesty and Tipperary accent were a tonic.
In fact some of the early work that Ryan destroyed was festering in the hard drives of old computers and it was a case of delete and empty trash rather than burning. But what made him trash the old material and believe in his first published novel so much he submitted it “to every publisher in the English-speaking world”?
Ryan discarded the work he wrote in his twenties because it didn’t ring true. “The voices were too forced and contrived and I had a weird low-level nausea in my stomach when I was writing.”
Then, with The Thing About December, Ryan tuned in to the right station, as he put it, and found his voice. The book, written before The Spinning Heart, was published last year and tells the story of Johnsey, a vulnerable young man in rural Ireland, hopelessly ill equipped to deal with the changes life thrusts upon him after his parents die. The story is written in the close third person and Johnsey’s predicament is told in his own deceptively simple language. The writing is moving and eloquent, and funny when it’s not devastating.
Ryan spoke about love a lot on Monday night and reading between the lines he appears to care deeply about Johnsey and what the character represents. Even his mother became fiercely protective of Johnsey and spoke of him as if he were a real person (rather endearingly, Ryan mentions his family a lot).
Ryan’s compassion is evident when he is talking about his characters. “Johnsey is a distillation of all the men I know who don’t speak. And I know lots. These are men who live alone in totally isolated farmhouses. I wanted to know what the inside of their heads would sound like.”
“All stories are about love, or the absence of love. All stories are based on declensions between those two states.” Ryan repeated this idea, which seems to be his motto.
I’m in the submission doldrums at the moment, that point when a writer begins to doubt their worthiness and the wisdom of committing so much time and passion to the whole enterprise. So of course I asked Ryan how he struck submission gold. He mentioned sheer luck and a scatter-gun approach but perseverance seems to have been the key.
Interestingly Ryan wrote The Spinning Heart (also set in Johnsey’s village but about a decade later, and written in 21 chapters of different first person narratives) swiftly and without a struggle while he was submitting The Thing About December, to take his mind off the rejections.
When he moved on to the submitting stage with The Spinning Heart he clocked up dozens of rejections. He kept print-outs of his email rejections in a folder and once, when asked by a journalist, made a rough count of forty seven, but there were more that didn’t make it into the folder, he said.
Ryan has been described as the best literary chronicler of the Celtic Tiger but in typical unassuming style, he says the fact that his two novels provided bookends for the Irish economic boom was accidental. “It was fortunate for me because it got me published. It was my hook.”
Donal Ryan has a collection of short stories coming out in December, also set in the same fictional village as the novels. He describes it as the best work he’s ever done. Meanwhile, work on his third novel is progressing painfully, he admits.
I left the Literaturhaus with a smile and with the feeling I was fortunate to have spent time listening to a great ambassador for Irish writing. It’s a reminder that whenever things get tough, it’s good to connect with other writers (if only from a distance) for inspiration and encouragement.
I’ll be back in Zurich next month to attend a talk by Siri Hustvedt. Can’t wait!