Of all the steps in the publishing process, seeing the cover for the first time is the most uplifting because it’s the first time that the dream seems real. I’m delighted to share the cover of my new historical novel Voting Day. Isn’t it lovely? This is the German version and the title translates as, The Day the Men Said No.
The day in question is February 1, 1959 when Swiss men voted no to granting women voting rights, by a two-thirds majority. The novel is set on that day and it tells the story of four very different women whose lives are connected by the fate of a foster child.
Voting Day will be published in four languages, including Italian and French. The plan is to publish on time for the 50th anniversary of the women’s vote in Switzerland (the men finally got the answer right in 1971).
When I realised the only way to make this project work would be to self-publish, I decided to go for it. It’s turned into an exciting and challenging journey. Fortunately, I received some advance funding to help pay for the translations. But to get the project over the finish line, I’m running a 32-day fundraising campaign, beginning today.
All the information about the campaign is given in German and English on the wemakeit website. There’s even a video I made in German – with subtitles. If you’d like to support me, now is the opportunity to put in an advance order for the book in whichever language you prefer. You can go for one of the other rewards or just contribute any amount you feel comfortable with.
Thank you very much for pitching in. It’s pretty scary putting myself out there in this way and I appreciate all your good wishes.
One day while walking my dog in the forest, I had an idea to tell the story of four women on a particular day in history. The date I had in mind was February 1st, 1959, and the setting was to be Switzerland. The result is my first novel, Voting Day, which will be published next February in the three official Swiss national languages (German, French and Italian) and English.
The vote in question was a referendum on female suffrage, rejected by male voters on that cold, foggy Sunday. Swiss women eventually gained voting rights 12 years later in 1971 so we’ll be celebrating the 50th anniversary next year.
From early morning until last thing at night, Voting Day tells the story of four very different women whose lives are connected by the fate of a foster child. While the men go out to vote, these women have other things on their minds, mostly.
Vreni is a farmer’s wife and foster mother in her late forties whose life has shrunk to the confines of the farm and village. Her daughter Margrit seems to have found success as an office girl in Bern but her boss has put her in an impossible position.
Esther is a Yenish woman, one of the native travelling people of Switzerland. Taken from her family as a child, she now works as a hospital cleaner. When her own son Ruedi is taken into care, the future looks bleak.
Beatrice has made a good career as the hospital administrator. She dreads the prospect of a no vote after putting her heart and soul into the yes campaign. But could she hold the key to reuniting Esther with Ruedi?
It was clear to me when I started writing Voting Day that it really should reach Swiss readers, but I didn’t know how I could achieve this. How could I find one Swiss publisher willing to arrange the translation of the book, let alone three? What to do with the English version?
Luckily a sponsor came on board who was willing to pay for the translations. That brought my dream much closer to reality. With the help of a local company in Fribourg, I began to put together an ambitious self-publishing project with a simultaneous launch in the four languages planned for next February.
Publishing has become more and more challenging and often loss-making for authors. I want to find a way around that. The German translation is complete and the French and Italian are under way. The publishing costs are adding up but everything is moving in the right direction.
In November I will launch a crowdfunding campaign and continue seeking other kinds of funding. I’ve already received a lot of moral and practical support. My characters – Vreni, Margrit, Esther and Beatrice – are my inspiration.
From now on, I’ll be writing regular updates on the progress of Voting Day, and I hope you’ll enjoy hearing about it. I can already share the first interview (in German) with skippr.ch about the German version, Der Tag, an dem die Männer Nein sagten.
Book bloggers and journalists, please get in touch through my contact page if you would like to receive a review copy in one of the languages.
Ireland is the guest country of honour at Le Livre sur les Quais literary festival in Morges this weekend, which means appearances by Anne Enright, Donal Ryan, Sara Baume, Kevin Barry, John Boyne, Paul McVeigh, and the winner of the 2017 Irish novel of the year award, Kit de Waal.
From what I know of other festival programmes, this gathering of Irish literary talent is unprecedented. The festival, which hosts 280 international writers, mainly from the French-speaking world, is free and open to the general public. It is one of the prettiest towns on Lake Geneva. Don’t let the rain keep you away.
Apart from being thrilled at the golden opportunity to meet some of my literary heroes and to hear them speak, the other reason I am harping on about Le livre sur les quais is that it is the first literary festival I will be taking part in as an author.
I’ll be joining Diccon Bewes and Padraig Rooney to discuss ‘Switzerland, Brexit and the new European reality’ at 4.30pm on Sunday in the Cave du Couvaloup. The debate will be hosted by Ed Girardet.
Bern-based Diccon Bewes, a household name in Switzerland, is British and a best-selling author of books about Switzerland. Padraig Rooney, author of The Gilded Chalet, is from the border region of Northern Ireland and has lived in Basel for many years. An interesting mix of perspectives on Europe!
Morges is known for its giant author tent on the lake shore, where writers sign their books and meet readers. More than one hundred and fifty events including panel discussions, conversations, talks, readings and films are taking place in various venues around the town as well as on board cruise ships.
Below is the full English programme. Hope to see you in Morges!
Friday, 1st September
18.00-19.00 – What Next in Irish Fiction? /Ou va la literature irlandaise? With Paul McVeigh, Donal Ryan, Anne Enright . Moderated by Matthew Wake – In English with the translation into French by Lesley Viet- Jacobsen. Venue: St Jeanne. English/French
Saturday, 2nd September
11h – 12h15 – Exile, Memory and Refugee Experience with Jason Donald, Hisham Matar, Melissa Fleming. Moderated by Ed Girardet. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.
13h – 14h45 – Dystopias, Utopias and Places of Escape with Rachel Joyce, Claire Vaye Watkins and Emmanuel Bergmann. Moderated by Michelle Bailat Jones. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.
15h – 16h15- Irish Encounters: turbulent families with Anne Enright, Sara Baume, Donal Ryan. Moderated by Helen Stubbs Pugin. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.
15h – 16h15 – After Arab Revolutions/Apres la revolution arabe: Hisham Matar in conversation with Thierry Meyer – with translation into French by Lesley Viet-Jacobsen. Venue: Sainte-Jeanne. English/French
16.30-18.00 – Writing History with John Boyne and Emmanuel Bergmann. Moderated by Helen Stubbs Pugin. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.
16.30 – Thriller sans Frontiers : Denise Mina et Bernard Minier en conversation – Moderation: Nine Simon et la traduction Lesley Viet-Jacobsen. Venue Sainte Jeanne. English/French
17.00-18.00 – Claire Vaye Watkins – lecture bilingue – Moderated by Michelle Bailat Jones. Venue: Nouvelle Couronne Cave. English/French
Also a fiction writing workshop:
15.30-17.30 – Fiction Writing Workshop: Perfectly flawed characters – Teacher: Jason Donald (in partnership with Geneva Writers’ Group), venue: Grenier Bernois, Bibliothèque Adulte. With prior registrations to firstname.lastname@example.org
Sunday, 3rd September
11-12.15 – Irish Encounters:Place and Landscape in Irish fiction with Kevin Barry, Kit de Waal, Sara Baume. Moderated by Matthew Wake. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.
12.30-13.40 – GWG cruise –Debut Novelists on Writing and Publishing with Paul McVeigh and Kit de Waal. Moderated by Elizabeth Coleman – tickets to buy online or from the ticket office. Boat – Le Lausanne, boarding on the quay.
13.30-14.45 – Writing Crime with Denise Mina, Ruth Ware, Sophie Hannah. Moderated by Ed Girardet. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.
15.00-16.15– Writing on the Borders with Rachel Joyce, Ruth Ware, Kevin Barry. Moderated by Michelle Bailat-Jones. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.
15.00 – 16.15 – Fictive ou reele – heros pour toujours: Sophie Hannah, Vivianne Perret – Anime par Elise Lepine et traduit par Lesley Viet-Jacobsen. Venue : Sainte Jeanne. English/French
16h30 – 17h45 – Switzerland, Brexit and the New European reality with Clare O’Dea, Padraig Rooney, Diccon Bewes. Moderated by Ed Girardet. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.
12.30-13.40 – GWG cruise –Debut Novelists on Writing and Publishing with Paul Mc Veigh and Kit de Waal. Moderated by Elizabeth Coleman – boat: Le Lausanne. Tickets to book online or from the ticket office.
GWG Creative Writing Workshops –Grenier Bernois – bibliotheque adulte. To pre-register at email@example.com
10.30-12.00 – Fiction Writing Workshop: Showing not telling – Teacher: Susan Jane Gilman (in partnership with Geneva Writers’ Group)
15.30-17.00 – Non-fiction Writing Workshop: Writing effective memoir – Teacher: Susan Jane Gilman (in partnership with Geneva Writers’ Group)
I took a walk on the wild side of Geneva with American author Anne Korkeakivi, the third subject to feature in this swissinfo.ch series of English-language writers based in Switzerland. The author of two novels, Shining Sea and An Unexpected Guest (both published by Little Brown), Anne’s work has been described as “eloquent” and “captivating”.
The New Yorker had a successful career as a journalist before she decided to try out her fiction wings. She stopped producing nonfiction work, taking a job as an editor for a French publishing house, and gave herself twelve months to make a go of fiction. She sold her first story in the eleventh month.
That was the encouragement Anne needed to devote herself to fiction. I spent a morning with Anne, walking through the woods and backroads of Geneva. Having lived abroad for most of her adult life, she is content to live in such an international city. This global spirit is evident in the many different locations Anne features in her work – from Paris to the Philippines to the Hebrides.
Anne’s two novels are very different in scope and tone. The action in the first, An Unexpected Guest, takes place over one day in Paris, as a woman married to a diplomat realises what shaky foundations her well-ordered life is built upon. Shining Sea has a panoramic sweep, following the lives of the large Gannon family over several decades and continents. You’ll find more information about Anne and her work on her website.
Also featured in this series is Susan Jane Gilman, author of TheIce Cream Queen of Orchard Street and three nonfiction books, as well as Jason Donald, author of Dalila and Choke Chain. There is one more author to come next week to complete the talented quartet.
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!
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.
When you say you’ve written a novel, it’s common enough to be asked whether you’ve considered self-publishing. I usually mumble something non-committal about it being too much to take on, not the direction I want to take. But what is really holding me back?
Think of the pre-published author as a wannabe sailor. Actually want-to-be doesn’t cover it. This is someone who has dedicated years to developing their knowledge of sailing, they’ve bought all the gear, read all the books and bored everybody around them with their endless nautical talk. The only problem is they’ve never actually been out on the water.
Down at the harbour is the old respected yacht club. This is the gateway to sailing, the place where real sailors congregate. There are experts on hand, hot showers, a state-of-the art marina and opportunities to crew on fantastic yachts every day.
The sailing enthusiast grew up hearing about this yacht club and their only wish is to join the yacht club and become a real sailor. But the yacht club is exclusive. There is a long waiting list and the club selects only a handful of new members every year.
Why not just buy a little sailing dingy and launch it from the public slipway at the other end of the harbour? They’ll have to get the boat there themselves, carry it down to the water and drag it back up again. There may not be any wind the day they manage to get all this together but they will be sailing. They will have their place on the ocean. Why sit on the shore and wait when they might never get a chance to sail at all?
Here are five reasons why the single-handed option doesn’t appeal to me.
1. Drop in the ocean. Self-publishing has become hugely popular with close to 450,000 titles published per year! This massive democratisation of the sector has created legions of new readers and new writers and that’s a great thing. But it also means an incredibly crowded space for authors to be trying to catch a wind. Most of those little dinghies are still stuck inside the harbour and this is a frustrating place to be. Only a tiny minority make it out into the bay where they can pick up speed.
2. All hands on deck. Self-publishing requires strong project management and entrepreneurial skills and there is no avoiding the out-of-pocket costs, knowledgeably listed by Jann Alexander in this recent post:
Publishing is a teamwork-based business best navigated with the help of an agent. Do you really want to have to sort out the cover design, proofreading, printing and distribution on top of writing your next book? And I haven’t even mentioned marketing.
3. Pieces of eight. This is the part that gives me the shivers. The people I see who appear to be making a success of the self-publishing route have a big author platform and often a big personality to go with it. All their social media is strategic. They are manically engaging with people not based on any organic process of interaction but because they are pumping energy into an online presence that has to work for them – ALL THE TIME. Sometimes intelligent and interesting, sometimes inspiring but also a little bit scary.
4. Ship shape. No matter how much has changed in the publishing game in the past decade, having one’s work chosen by the industry as worthy of publication is still the most important measure of quality. It’s not that established publishing houses aren’t guilty of publishing poorly written books or that masterpieces can’t be found among the half a million. It’s just that self-publishing is an open door and that unavoidably lowers the value of the group.
5. Deep water. From what I’ve seen, self-published authors fall into two categories. There are the crusaders for whom self-publishing is a quasi-political movement and there are the pragmatists who have opted for self-publishing as the only viable way to get their book read, usually after trying and failing to go the traditional publishing route. The pragmatists are making the best of things and may even turn into crusaders in time but underneath it all you can sense the strain.
Obviously I’ve stretched the nautical analogy to the absolute limit at this point and probably managed to reveal how little I know about both sailing and publishing in one fell swoop. I’m aware that publishing your own work takes a lot of courage and dedication and that this discussion can be quite divisive. What are your thoughts? Is it possible to like one option without loathing the other?
(Please check out Marc Kuhn’s response to this post on his blog. A former radio journalist, Marc lives in Florida and is the author of two children’s novels and two adult novels.)
There’s a long list of successful authors who were once journalists but you can be sure there’s a much longer list of journalists whose novels never got off the hard drive or the back of a beermat.
I’ll admit I’m hoping the answer to this question will be yes for me, as I have been a journalist for most of my working life and have been attempting to make that leap to fiction. I’m currently seeking representation for my first novel while working on the first draft of my second novel.
But let’s be completely objective and take a look at what natural advantages and disadvantages news scribblers can expect on the rocky path leading from fact to fiction.
1. Lack of staying power. Journalism has always been about concise writing and fitting the space available. But things have taken a more radical turn with the advent of ‘mobile first’: some top news organisations are now advocating stories of 500 words or less. I worked under strict length guidelines for a long time with the result that I am now hard wired to have any story wrapped up within 1,200 words. I believe that has cramped my style in short stories, where I struggle to get above 1,500 words. And it makes me unconsciously (until this moment) write short chapters. One to work on.
2. Empty tank. The need to constantly come up with new story ideas in the day job can suck the creative juices dry. But it’s not just the idea mill that demands creative energy, more creative effort must go into the researching and crafting of those articles, with precious little inspiration left for other subjects.
3. Ingrained style. Journalism is about spelling it out, clarity all the way. You inevitably develop (and overuse) favourite words and turns of phrase. Newswriting is a genre in itself and you become steeped in it, consuming the work of others and probably imitating them too. There is some scope for introducing emotion or descriptive writing in feature articles but that still remains inside a set framework.
Grease the wheels
1. The groove. You’ve already got the habit and the discipline of writing on a daily basis. You have to produce texts that are coherent and correct, over and over again. That is definitely worth something. Language and storytelling skills build up over time, and the grammar, punctuation and sentence-building muscles become strong.
2. The Professionals. Once you have worked as one kind of professional writer, it should be possible to make the transition to a different category, shouldn’t it? Deadlines are not a problem. The same goes for the editing process. A good journalist can’t be precious about their work. They have to accept tough editing decisions and be prepared to rewrite if necessary.
3. Eye of the magpie. Journalists listen to conversations and watch situations differently. Could there be a story in that? is the reflex thought. They are keen observers, interviewing someone while at the same time taking in their appearance and the surroundings with a view to writing about it. I notice the same dynamic at work as a fiction writer. When I hear or see something sparkly that could be used for a story, I pick it up, magpie style, and stash it away somewhere for safekeeping.
There can be a hint of scepticism from people in the literary world when journalists stray into their territory. Are they interlopers who’ve jumped the slush pile because of their name or connections? I don’t know about that. Most journalists are (semi-)unknown and publishing industry outsiders. But some may have a platform and platform has become important. My guess is the publishing industry is so spoilt for choice they don’t need to give anyone special treatment.
Have I forgotten anything? It would be great to be able to add to the list of advantages (especially) or disadvantages (if you must) for journalists turning to fiction. Are there any journalists-turned-novelists whose work you’ve enjoyed, or not? I can think of three recent Irish examples – Kathleen MacMahon , Rachel English and Shane Hegarty, only one of whom has ‘given up the day job’ and it hasn’t all been plain sailing for her.
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?
I did try to find good husbands, honest, but bad husbands are obviously overrepresented in fiction, unhappy families being so much more interesting. So here they are – stern and distant, abusive and alcoholic, the kind of men who make a prison of marriage and double as the gaoler.
It was this passage from Alice Munro’s short story What is Remembered that first set me on the quest for husbands in books. In a few short lines it tells us everything we need to know about gender roles in marriage in a particular class at a particular time. Makes me glad I was born in the 1970s and missed everything up to and including the Mad Men era.
Young husbands were stern, in those days. Just a short time before, they had been suitors, almost figures of fun, knock-kneed and desperate in their sexual agonies. Now, bedded down, they turned resolute and disapproving. Off to work every morning, clean-shaven, youthful necks in knotted ties, days spent in unknown labors, home again at suppertime to take a critical glance at the evening meal and to shake out the newspaper, hold it up between themselves and the kitchen, the ailments and emotions, the babies.
This next excerpt comes from The Secret History by Donna Tartt, which I reviewed in my last post but I’m allowing myself to dip into the novel again because I find this such a chilling fictional account of domestic violence. Tartt is nothing if not restrained; we had to wait until page 588 to find out this important information about our narrator. This childhood memory surfaces as the alliance with his group of friends is unravelling under the strain of covering up a murder.
I remember, when I was a kid, once seeing my father strike my mother for absolutely no reason. Though he sometimes did the same thing to me, I did not realize that he did it sheerly out of bad temper, and believed that his trumped-up justifications (‘You talk too much; ‘Don’t look at me like that’) somehow warranted the punishment. But the day I saw him hit my mother (because she had remarked, innocently, that the neighbours were building an addition to their house; later he would claim she had provoked him, that it was a reproach about his abilities as a wage earner, and she, tearfully, would agree) I realized that the childish impression I had always had of my father, as Just Lawgiver, was entirely wrong. We were utterly dependent on this man, who was not only deluded and ignorant, but incompetent in every way. What was more, I knew that my mother was incapable of standing up to him. It was like walking into the cockpit of an airplane and finding the pilot and co-pilot passed out drunk in their seats. And standing outside the Lyceum, I was struck with a black, incredulous horror, which in fact was not at all unlike the horror I had felt at twelve, sitting on a bar stool in our sunny little kitchen in Plano. Who is in control here? I thought, dismayed. Who is flying this plane?
Going back to the nineteenth century and over to Russia, here is a moment in Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy when Anna’s husband Karenin is in his study mulling over how to reprimand his wife for openly flirting with Vronsky at a social gathering.
He began to think of her, of what she was thinking and feeling. For the first time he really pictured to himself her personal life, her ideas, her desires; and the notion that she could and should have a separate life of her own appeared to him so dreadful that he hastened to drive it away. This was the abyss into which he was afraid to look. To put himself in thought and feeling into another being was a mental exercise foreign to Karenin.
And what he would say to his wife took shape in Karenin’s head. As he thought it over, he grudged having to expend his time and intellect on such domestic matters. But, in spite of that, the form and sequence of the speech he had to make shaped themselves in his head as clearly and precisely as if it were a ministerial report.
The final bad husband in our hall of fame today is Charlie van der Linden from On Green Dolphin Street by Sebastian Faulks, a lovely book about adultery. Actually Charlie is not such a bad guy, more of a mess, and he does love his wife Mary.
It was an art, knowing whether Charlie should be indulged, rebuked or put to bed, but it was one in which Mary was practised. It was a failure to her if he could not be made to have dinner, but would only curl up with a bottle, rebuffing her attempts at friendliness. She decided to leave him where he was while she took a bath; sometimes a short sleep could pull him on to the main line of the day, especially if followed by a shower and a large scotch on the rocks.
There is one more awful character who should be featured here but I don’t have a copy of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. If I did I would be scouring the pages for a damning description of the awful Edward Murdstone who tyrannised David’s mother (for once a wicked step-father!), sent her son away, ruined her health and inherited her property.