What’s another year? Shifting goalposts in 2019

20190919_140323

I didn’t write a round-up of 2018. Looking back, this was probably because not much went according to plan. It was a year of near misses professionally. The only big project I managed to salvage was the book that became The Naked Irish. I signed with Mentor Books / Red Stag in November 2018 and the book was published in September 2019.

Other plans that went by the wayside last year after a lot of work and anticipation included a book translation project, an application to do a Master’s, a possible job in Basel, submission of a middle grade novel and a memoir writing business. But just when I was beginning to think everything I touched turned to ashes, I got that much-needed yes from Mentor Books.

So there was a point in time when all I wanted was for a publisher to accept the book about Ireland and publish it. But as soon as that became a reality, the goalposts shifted. It wasn’t enough just for the book to be published any more, I wanted it to be a critical success. I wanted reviews to confirm that I had done a good job.

From my point of view, the book has been a critical success, with positive reviews appearing in the Irish Independent, the Business Post and The Irish Times. It is on sale all over Ireland and was hopefully under many Christmas trees this year.

Now, I notice that my greedy writer goalposts have shifted again. Suddenly, Ireland is not enough. I want the book to be a commercial success and that means looking beyond the small Irish market. After all, The Irish Times review said the book would appeal to readers outside Ireland who have reasons for peering in. People like Irish Americans. They should obviously read The Naked Irish too, ideally in great numbers. God, it’s exhausting.

No, instead of obsessing about US publishers, I would like to savour the moment. That’s what Christmas is all about, isn’t it? I want to be thankful for everything I’ve achieved so far and all the good things that have happened in 2019. I already have more than I could have hoped for a year ago. It is enough, as these photos remind me.

20190116_114445

In January, I went to Ireland on a short research trip for the book. I had so much work ahead of me but this was the best part, the last bit of real-life research. I had meetings set up in Belfast and Ballyjamesduff and I interviewed the veteran women’s rights campaigner, Ailbhe Smyth, in Dublin. I also recorded two radio essays for RTE’s Sunday Miscellany, and enjoyed time with family and friends.

This is a photo from the drive to Co. Cavan. I chose Ballyjamesduff as a case-study because it perfectly represents the two sides of the Irish emigration story. On the one hand, the town is associated with emigration thanks to Percy French’s 1912 song, Come Back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff. On the other hand, it has the fourth highest immigrant population of all Irish towns with 30 per cent non-national residents. I got a warm welcome at the local school, St Clare’s College. My mother came with me as co-driver and she visited the local emigration museum (coincidence!) while I was at the school. We had a lovely lunch on the way back in this village, Virginia, and plenty of time to chat on the journey.

In March, I finally got to visit James Joyce’s grave in Zurich at the instigation of my cousin Jennifer, who was visiting from Ireland. We spent a wonderful day together in the city with time to talk and had a memorable conversation about life and death at the graveyard. There were murmurings this year about moving Joyce’s body back to Dublin. Such nonsense, he’s fine where he is, really.

20190324_111541

Also in March, I had a writing weekend away in Wilderswil in the Berner Oberland. It’s the second time I’ve gone away with this small group of writers. The village is quiet off-season and we stay in a nice little hotel and meet for meals in between writing sessions. The perfect mix of solitude and good company. This was the view from my room.

20190330_160726

The big event in June was the Women’s Strike in Switzerland. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets all over Switzerland on the 14th. I went along to my local demonstration in Fribourg with two friends. We wanted to draw attention to all the unresolved equality issues in Switzerland and elsewhere. The energy and feeling of unity in the crowd was amazing. As the white sign here says: ‘If you’re here it means you get it’. I don’t always feel like I’m fully connected to Swiss society. This was one of the good days.

20190614_192017

In July, one day that stands out is when I took a hike with my daughter and the dog. She had a few days home alone while the other two were at camps. It was a very hot day and we took the train to the neighbouring town of Düdingen to walk back home. I know the area well but I’d never walked it so it was a journey of discovery and we had a lovely relaxing, fun time together.

20190719_101130

We had a family version of this adventure when we took the train to Grenchen with our bikes one day in the summer and cycled along the Aare river to Solothurn. A week spent in Portugal with the extended family was another delightful escape from normal life.

September brought the launch of The Naked Irish in Dublin, a very happy occasion. Both my godparents were there, three generations of my family, my husband, friends from school, college, writing and work. It was a reunion really, a great reason to get together and celebrate. I had the pleasure of seeing my book on Irish shelves at last (photo by Ger Holland).

IMG-20190927-WA0000

A Swiss launch of The Naked Irish followed in November in Book Books Books in Lausanne, and, in December, I was asked to moderate a panel discussion on Brexit in the University of St. Gallen, organised by swissinfo.ch. It was my third time moderating this year – the first two were literary events: the Bibliotopia festival in May and Le Livre sur les quais in September. This is something I definitely want to do more of.

EKxxbhtWkAAuqDk

It seems like most of my highlights this year involved spending time connecting with people and doing interesting work. There were plenty of humdrum days too but the year was also made richer by the books I read. Thanks to Goodreads, I know I read 50 books this year. You can view the list on that link, including some reviews. My favourite novels were Olive Again by Elizabeth Strout, The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey, The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman, and Hidden Latitudes by Alison Anderson.

I really enjoyed answering questions about my favourite non-fiction books for the website Smartthinkingbooks. You can read the interview here. Actually, I think a separate blog post is needed to talk about the books of 2019.

I hope you are fortunate enough, like me, to have a few more quiet days of freedom left before returning to the normal routine. If you scroll back through your photos of the year, may you find many good times to recall with a smile. Wishing everyone good health, harmony and goodwill in 2020.

Writing news and summer days

Zurich

Quite a lot has happened over the past few months so I thought I’d share some of my writing news before I lose track. I’m borrowing the Irish calendar summer here, which is May, June and July. In Switzerland, summer officially starts on midsummer’s day, June 21st. This way I get the best of both worlds.

May was the month of reviews. An Irish academic in Germany, Fergal Lenehan, wrote a long, thoughtful essay about The Naked Swiss for the Dublin Review of Books. It is the best, most comprehensive analysis of the book so far. A great reward in itself. Lenehan is the author of a book about German images of Ireland which is based on a study of news coverage of Ireland in two German weekly publications, Der Spiegel and Die Zeit, over a 60-year period. On average, the two outlets together ran one article about Ireland per month from 1946 to 2010, indicating a surprising level of interest.

At the end of the month, I got an unexpected message from the Swiss correspondent of the Financial Times, Ralph Atkins, to let me know that his review of The Naked Swiss was online. Needless to say, I was delighted, but also taken aback by the tone of the debate in the comments at the end of the article. Who would have thought FT readers were so emotional?

In June, I got the good news that a short story of mine had been placed second in the fiction category of the Geneva Literary Prize. The story hasn’t been published yet but I will let you know as soon as it’s available to read. A member of my tiny writers’ group, Tara McLoughlin Giroud, won the non-fiction prize so it was a double celebration.

Then came the most exciting news of the summer. I received an invitation to take part in Le Livre sur les Quais literary festival in Morges, an event I referred to last year in a blog post as ‘book heaven’ on Lake Geneva. Here’s a photo from the 2016 festival.

20160903_143714

The festival takes place from September 1 to 3, and what makes it really special is that the guest country of honour this year is Ireland. To be appearing under the same roof as some of the most respected names in contemporary Irish literature is almost too good to be true. My panel event is scheduled for Sunday afternoon but the rest of the time I will be hopping from one talk to the next, soaking up the literary atmosphere. As soon as the English programme is published, I’ll share it here. The Irish and international authors on the bill include John Boyne, Kevin Barry, Sara Baume, Paul McVeigh, Donal Ryan, Kit de Waal and Douglas Kennedy.

I’ll leave you with some images of these summer days in Switzerland. The photo at the top is of Limmatquai in Zurich. Highlights so far: Swims in the Aare river (Bern) and the Limmat. A hike along Lake Brienz. A night spent “sleeping on the straw”. Meeting scary cows on an alp. Crossing Lake Geneva at dawn. Sunset at Muntelier.

Wishing you all lots of freedom and fun this summer.

20170610_155026
Axalp in the Bernese Oberland
20170714_072140
Morning in Lausanne

 

20170525_172558
Charmey, Fribourg

 

A guide to writing your first nonfiction book

IMG-20161112-WA0000

Since my first book, The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths, was published last October, I’ve met several people who’ve mentioned their wish to write a nonfiction book. These tend to be people who already write as part of their work. They have strong ideas and expertise, but they feel uncertain about making the leap to a book.

Like all challenges, this one can be broken down. The first thing to say is that you don’t need anyone’s permission to write. You could start this weekend. No-one will know, and no-one will stop you.

As an unpublished writer, the first stage of writing is purely between you and the page. It is a process of self-expression. When it comes to the next stage of writing – entering the writing business – things get more complicated. But that should not prevent you from attempting stage one.

Test the idea

It is likely you will have carried the idea for your book around in your head for a while. This is a good thing. It means the idea is incubating, and should hatch at some point. But if you don’t test it, you might never find out if the concept is strong enough to stand up.

In terms of subject matter, the sky is the limit. The important thing is that this is a subject you feel passionate about. You have something to communicate.

The test is to answer this question: What is the book about? Write it down in one line. Here are some examples I made up:

  • A week-by-week guide to cultivating a successful vegetable patch, with blank pages for readers to track their progress.
  • A self-help book for people who want to convert to a vegetarian diet, offering a mix of psychology, politics and recipes.
  • A compilation of ten mini-biographies of leading women scientists – aimed at young girls.
  • This book tells the true story of the Swiss children sent to work as chimney sweeps in Italy in the 20th century.

Get organised

When the concept is clear in your mind, you can expand it to a one-page pitch. If yours is a long-held idea, chances are you will have already done some research, if not in a targeted way. You need to organise that material. How much do you have? Perhaps you already have your own written content that could be fed into the book, such as articles, blogposts, diary entries or essays. What fresh research do you need to do? Come up with a system to collate your material – folders, notebooks, cards, whatever works for you.

This is the point where the structure becomes important. You need to put some thought into how your content can be arranged. In some cases, for example the scientist biographies mentioned above, the chapter divisions will be obvious. In other cases, you will have to carefully work out how to present your ideas or story. Have a look at the content pages of the nonfiction books you like. Reading books similar to one you intend to write is part of the research process, and an indication of your passion.

Every book is written one chapter at a time. When you are ready, sit down and try to write a chapter. It is only by writing a sample chapter that you will bring forth the style of the book. Expect to have to work through many drafts.

If you are planning to self-publish, you carry on from here. If not, this is the moment to pause and research submitting targets.

Submitting

Unlike fiction, where authors approach an agent or publisher with a polished, completed manuscript, nonfiction is usually sold on proposal. Most publishers and agents ask for one sample chapter, and a cover letter explaining the concept, structure and target audience. They want to hear why you are right person to write the book, what platform you have, and they may ask how you would help promote the book. Submission requirements vary, so do make sure to follow them faithfully to show your professionalism. Expect each submission to take as much time as a job application.

As a first-time writer, you can expect go through this process umpteen times without success. You will receive either no response or standard rejections, and be happy if you get a few words of encouragement from one in twenty submissions. Here is a post I wrote about dealing with rejection as an author.

The reality of the market is that the world is not waiting for anyone’s book. There is an oversupply of authors eager to be published. It comes down to finding the right match. If you present the right kind of book to the right person at the right time, you may be lucky.

Make time

If you do get to the point of ploughing ahead with the book, you will need to allocate time to write regularly. Even if you have plenty of free time, it makes sense to set yourself writing hours, as this is a project that requires discipline. If you don’t have much free time, you will need to decide what can be sacrificed from your weekly activities – television, social media, family time, sport. Something has to give.

Ideally, you should have a writing partner or editor to review your work as you go along, as a form of quality control. But whatever happens, no book should be sent out into the world without some form of editing from another party or parties, as well as proofreading.

I hope you found this advice useful. Depending on the reaction to this post, I may make it the first in a series of how-to articles. Don’t forget to share the link with others through the social media buttons below, and feel free to comment if you have any questions.

Book heaven on Lake Geneva

Book heaven on Lake Geneva

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.  

20160903_144802

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.

20160903_143714

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. 

20160904_103643 (1)

 

The desolation of domestic life

2014-12-21 12.06.59

It’s ok, I’m not talking about my own domestic woes. I’ve just been reading The Springs of Affection by Maeve Brennan, a collection of short stories set in Dublin and written between the 1950s and 1970s when Brennan lived in New York.

In between stories I started the wonderful Academy Street by Mary Costello, in which the main character Tess lives in New York through that same period and beyond. I lived under the melancholy spell of that book for three days, snatching it greedily back up at every opportunity. Academy Street gives the illusion of moving slowly without much drama but before you know it you have been through Tess’s entire life, a patchwork of tragedy, transient love and inertia.

For more on Academy Street I would recommend this fabulous review by fellow blogger and author Anne Goodwin, whose first novel, Sugar and Snails, was published last July.

Tess, with her emotionally debilitating upbringing and tragic lack of self-belief, could be a character from one of Brennan’s stories. But while Brennan reproduced on paper the “petty social intricacies of the city she had left”, she was living the high life in New York, working as a columnist for The New Yorker and enjoying the kind of success and freedom most girls of those times only dreamed about.

After a disastrous marriage, Brennan had a breakdown and her illustrious career – and her life – fell apart. She spent the last fifteen years of her life plagued by alcoholism and mental illness, homeless at times, and died forgotten and penniless in 1993.

Some of Brennan’s characters appear in several of her stories and a lot of the action takes place in one particular house in a suburban street on the city’s south side, in Ranelagh to be exact. This is the house where Brennan grew up, where her family went through precarious times while her father was on the run during the Civil War. In the new Free State, he was on the winning side and the family moved to Washington when he was appointed Ireland’s envoy the United States. Maeve Brennan never moved back.

There is a play, Maeve’s House, based on Brennan’s life which I wish I had seen. It was commissioned by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and was also staged in New York in 2013. The play owes its existence to an amazing coincidence: the actor performing the one-man show also lived in the house were Brennan grew up. Eamon Morrissey’s family bought the house in Ranelagh from Brennan’s parents when they moved to the US.

Morrissey was surprised to discover in one of her stories an exact description of his childhood home and he contacted her at the magazine; they arranged to meet in New York.
Here’s a review of the New York show.

To get back to the stories. Some are gently moving while others are steeped in despair, portraits of people trapped in prisons of their own making. The title story The Springs of Affection (1972) is the longest in the book and it features one of the most vividly drawn and unlikable characters I have ever come across.

Her name is Min and she is the last surviving member of her family. A seamstress by trade, Min has lived a life of unrealised dreams, defined by envy and spite, but she finds herself on top in the end, triumphant in her longevity.

“Min sat beside her own gas fire in her own flat in Wexford and considered life and crime and punishment according to the laws of arithmetic. She counted up and down the years, and added and subtracted the questions and answers, and found that she came out with a very tidy balance in her favour.”

Min’s brother Martin and his wife Delia are described with scathing disapproval by Min in her recollections. We meet the couple in several of the other stories, notably in The Twelfth Wedding Anniversary (first published in The New Yorker in 1966), where their domestic misery is writ large. When Martin returns home late after ignoring their anniversary, he finds refuge in his family’s slumber.

“… If this night could only last a week, or two weeks, I might have time to get everything straightened out in my head, and then I would know what to do … If they would only sleep happily like that for a long time, he might find himself able to think again. But the coming of day, a few hours off, rose up in his mind like a towering wave that was all the more awful because it would be succeeded after twenty-four hours by another wave, and then another. There was no end to the days ahead, and the ones furthest off, years from now, were gathering power while he stood waiting on the landing. It was a merciless prospect. There was no way out of this house, which now seemed to contain all of his future as well as a good part of his past.”

Oh the unhappiness!

Breaking every rule in the book

“Never let a manuscript hit the ground. Keep them in flight – working for you.” That was the advice I heard from Mike McCormack at a seminar organised by the Irish Writers’ Centre in November. This is a man who tried forty publishers before he got a deal for his first book. At the moment I have two little birds in flight but I’d like to do better than that and declare February a submissions month.

The timing is right because the novel, now that the rewrite is done (let’s call it the second draft), is going to be banished to a drawer again, almost a year after its first banishment, which in retrospect was too short.

Looking back, I don’t know why I didn’t prepare a little better before embarking on this writing marathon. Along the way I have broken every rule in the book.

It started with too many sub plots. A novel, like a good meal, needs the right ingredients and a little bit of planning. You are unlikely to delight your guests if you throw everything you have in the cupboard into the pot. When I removed the extraneous bits and pieces from the book, the debris resembled the collection of things you might see extracted from a dead shark’s stomach (just to stretch the digestion metaphor ever so slightly).

There were also too many goddamn people in the book. It got so bad they were bumping into each other and there was nowhere to sit down. I’ve done my best here but things still a tad crowded.

Not only that but I fell into the trap of dumping back story in the opening chapters like it was going out of fashion. For every one step forwards, my main character was taking thirteen steps backwards, way back into her memory and the more distant past, reflecting on her childhood, relationships, current life situation – anything rather than get on with the story.

Did I mention that I changed the point-of-view of the novel too? Somewhere around the end of November I had a crisis of faith (another one!) and came to the conclusion that the book would work better if it was told in the first person. I tried out a reworked chapter on the members of my writing course, got their blessing and the big conversion began.

There was also the small matter of multiple breaches of the show don’t tell rule, which I dealt with in a previous post.

Also on the subject of showing, I made the classic mistake of showing too soon. Under the illusion that the novel was ‘finished’, I asked for feedback before I had a clear idea of where I was going with the story – and before I had weeded out the indigestible matter.

Which brings me to the final point, the only piece of advice I feel qualified to give to anyone wanting to write their first novel. Do not put finger to keyboard until you have a clear sense of direction for the story. Something like this perhaps:

Girl in tribal Pakistan wants to be a doctor, makes a bargain with local warlord to sacrifice her honour for her dream. He pays her way through medical school but will she ever really escape the clutches of the evil Khalid?

Of course it will evolve as you write but so much better to have the roadmap there.

You might wonder whether I have managed to rescue a coherent piece of fiction from this muddle. I’d like to think I have, or at least that I am well on the way there. But we’ll see when the manuscript comes back from the cooler.

Another speaker at that seminar in Dublin, Dave Lordan, said he had always found it essential to take time away from everything to work on a manuscript. “That time and concentration will lift the manuscript. It won’t happen if you do two hours here and there.”

It would be nice to make a date with the manuscript after its return from exile, a mini-break away from all the other demands and distractions of life, just the two of us. Here’s hoping. Has anyone else managed to steal time away to write? Sounds like heaven to me.

Ps. This blog is one year old today!

pink-cupcake-candle-illustration-19566495

‘The Impositions of the Body’

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A paper cut, a sore throat, a sprained ankle – these are the little reminders that the body is fortress that is all too easily breached. I’ve just thrown away my crutches after a minor foot injury and I’m so relieved to be back to normal, defence walls mended – until the next time.

A while back I wrote of review of Still Alice by Lisa Genova, a beautiful portrayal of a woman going through the onset of Alzheimer’s – a wonderful novel which has won a place in my top ten forever. In the same blog post I mentioned So Much for That by Lionel Shriver, which also has illness as one of its main subjects. In this story Glynis, the rather unsympathetic wife of the main character Shephard, is going through aggressive and debilitating treatments for cancer. There is a passage in the book where we get an insight into what Glynis has learned from her difficult experience. I find it bleak but fascinating.

“Before Glynis had become something of a mystery to After Glynis. … This Before Glynis was a woman, she gathered, who had enjoyed the luxury of vast tracts of time unfettered not only by the need to make money, as Shephard was forever harping on about, but – all that really matters, it turned out – by the impositions of the body. This was a woman who was “well”. (Perhaps more than any other quality, this theoretical state eluded the After-Glynis grasp. But only as an experience. As a concept, she understood being “well” better than anyone else on the planet.) For After Glynis had discovered a terrible secret: There is only the body. There was never anything but the body. “Wellness” is the illusion of not having one. Wellness is escape from the body. But there is no escape. So wellness is delay. What had Before Glynis – Well Glynis, Pre-Inorexably-Going-To-Be-Sick-Any-Minute-Now Glynis, done with her free ride, her gift of the soon-to-be-revoked illusion that she was not, after all, a body – a body and only a body?”

Another passage about illness that made a big impression on me comes from The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby. This unforgettable memoir was dictated by Bauby who suffered a massive stroke and was left paralysed and unable to speak with Locked-In Syndrome. It must be the only book which was dictated by blinking one eyelid (he describes the technique in the book).

“In fact it is in my respiratory passages that I can hope for improvement. In the long term, I can hope to eat more normally: that is without the help of a gastric tube. Eventually, perhaps I could breathe naturally, without a respirator, and muster enough breath to make my vocal chords vibrate.

But for now, I would be the happiest of men if I could just swallow the overflow of saliva endlessly flooding my mouth.”

Although Bauby laments all that he has lost, the book is not an exercise in self-pity but a record of what is beautiful and precious in life.

Has anyone else come across interesting books that deal with the subject of illness? Or is it something you have written about yourself?

(Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Writing lessons from Charles Dickens

Oliver amazed at Dodger’s mode of ‘going to work’ – George Cruickshank
Oliver amazed at Dodger’s mode of ‘going to work’ – George Cruickshank

The first draft of a story is just the raw material, right? It will need to be revised, reworked, perhaps even radically overhauled, word by word, plot hole by plot hole. This is the fall back that makes writing a slightly less daunting endeavour. Thankfully everything you put down can later be improved, reordered or deleted.

That is the stage I am at now, trying to enhance my novel to the best of my abilities – and there’s a lot more work to do. But once in a while, a writer of genius come along who breaks all the rules, someone like the giant of 19th century English fiction Charles Dickens.

Last year being the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth there was a lot of Dickens talk and I happened to hear a radio discussion about the great writer in which one of the experts named Our Mutual Friend as the author’s best book. It had been years since I’d picked up a Dickens novel but he’s always been close to my heart. My grandmother, who shared my childhood home, was a lifelong Dickens fan and was always willing to read to us.

So I got my hands on a copy and tackled the near 800-page opus. At the back I was delighted to discover Dickens’ plot plans and notes included. It’s a fascinating insight into his working method and brain. He had worked out (monthly) number by number how the action would unfold, weaving all the storylines together and leading his characters on a merry dance through to conclusion.

Courtesy of Claire Tomalin’s suberb biography – Charles Dickens A Life – which I’m currently reading, I have discovered a lot more about Dickens. From the very beginning Dickens did not have the luxury of letting his stories evolve organically as they were serialised in monthly or weekly issues. Tomlin quotes Dickens as saying: “My friends told me it was a low cheap form of publication, by which I should ruin all my rising hopes”. He triumphantly proved them wrong.

For ten months in 1837 two of his serial stories, The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, ran simultaneously. Dickens was producing the chapters for two different publishers and coordinating with two illustrators – an incredible juggling act, on top of which he was also editing and contributing to a monthly magazine Bentley’s Miscellany.

“Managing this double feat was an unprecedented and amazing achievement. Everything had to be planned in his head in advance. Pickwick had started as a series of loosely rambling episodes, but he was now introducing plot … and Oliver was tightly plotted and shaped from the start. There was no going back to change or adjust once a number was printed; everything had to be right the first time. … Each number of Pickwick and Oliver consisted of about 7,500 words, and in theory he simply divided every month, allotting a fortnight to each new section of each book. In practice this did not always work out as well as he hoped, and although he sometimes got ahead, there were many months when he only just managed to get his copy to the printer in time.”

Just four years earlier, aged 21, his first piece of non-journalistic writing was published – a ‘sketch’ or short story, published anonymously and for no fee in a very small circulation magazine called the Monthly. He remembered dropped in his offering “stealthily one evening at twilight” after the place had closed. The sketch was followed by many more and led to fame within months and a 30-year stellar career.

We cannot watch fly-on-the-wall documentaries about life in Victorian England but we do have Dickens, who transposed so many of the characters and everyday scenes around him into his work. The people loved him for his crusade against the appalling social injustice of the day and we still have the privilege of learning from the great master of storytelling.

The Woman Who Went to Bed For a Year

No it’s not me. The most I have managed is half a day. Great title though. When I saw that this novel was written by the British icon of young adult comic fiction in the 1980s, Sue Townsend, I was intrigued. I hadn’t read anything of hers since the early titles of the Adrian Mole series.

The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year is a cautionary tale for wives and mothers everywhere. When your identity – and all your time – is subsumed by what you do for other people, you may suddenly find yourself a lost cause.

On the day her twins leave home for university, Eva climbs into bed and stays there. She doesn’t have a plan or a manifesto, just a conviction which evolves into a phobia that she cannot leave that bed.

Against this backdrop Townsend introduces a host of characters, some loveable, some dreadful but all very human and highly amusing. The best laughs of the book come from the antics of Eva’s appalling husband Brian, closely followed by his long-suffering mother.

What I like about the book is that it’s entertaining first and thought provoking second. It will be enjoyed by young women – should even be handed out in maternity wards as a guide to the pitfalls of mothering (and marriage!) – but perhaps most appreciated by older women.

On a practical level what I took away from Townsend’s story was a decision to step back ever so slightly last Christmas. Eva’s long description of the exhausting self-imposed burden that the family’s Christmas celebrations had become rang warning bells for me. This time round I shared the festive secrets and the to-do list, and will do my best to resist the temptation from now on to scale up the traditions and obligations from year to year.

Back to Blackbrick

May I introduce myself? I was the person sitting next to you on the flight last Sunday who had to keep closing her book because she was welling up. I also had to keep going back to it because I was hooked by the plot. What was I reading? Back to Blackbrick by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald. I don’t normally read young adult fiction; it all looks a bit deliberately silly to me – judging by the covers (I know!). But this novel is different. The main character Cosmo is like Adrian Mole’s sweet younger cousin. He has all the right instincts in the face of life’s challenges, without the judgement or the conviction to make the right moves. Cosmo can’t really handle his emotions and yet he is the character who remains truest to those he loves.

Who hasn’t dreamt of going back in time to see how our forefathers lived? The Blackbrick of the title is the stately home where Cosmo’s grandfather lived and worked as a boy. Distressed at his grandfather’s decline brought on by Alzheimer’s, Cosmo goes back to Blackbrick and discovers a way to unlock the secrets that overshadowed his grandfather’s early life. There are some pretty adult themes in Back to Blackbrick – bereavement, the perils of the class system and the stigmatisation of unmarried mothers. But here is a writer who can make you smile when she describes the tragic advance of dementia, who celebrates the bonds of family and friendship no matter what. If you are looking for something a little more meaningful to buy your teenagers or bright pre-teens, Back to Blackbrick is it.

Sarah Moore Fitzgerald’s book was launched earlier this month in Limerick and Dublin, published by Orion. The US version will be published soon as far as I know and translations are in the pipeline. So, bearing in mind the small disclaimer that I was once Sarah’s sweet younger cousin (less sweet now), rest assured this is an exceptional piece of fiction.
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Back-Blackbrick-Sarah-Moore-Fitzgerald/dp/1444006592