Saturday, 29 August 2009

The Novelist and the Biographer

I’m staying at Peralta in a beautiful top floor room with views out over the valley towards the sea. I have a small table to write on and a kettle and a fridge - everything I need! Neil works in a tower room and sleeps in a tiny cubicle above his studio when I’m not here, oblivious to plaster dust, as well as the heat that leaches moisture out of the ground, burning every blade of grass and scorching the trees. Even at 1500 feet there are few breezes in August.

Fiore di Henriques, the sculptor who found Peralta as a ruined, abandoned hamlet in the sixties and restored it, intended it as a community of artists and writers. One small cell is called ‘The Poet’s House’ and she always hoped that one day a poet would come and write in it. Unfortunately it’s still a furniture store, but I live in hope of being able to get in there and write a few lines, just for Fiore!

But artists and writers do come here, usually off-season when it’s cheaper, to enjoy the beautiful scnery and complete tranquility. Neil is ‘sculptor in residence’ at the moment, and the Chelsea Art Club regularly bring groups of painters. Recently two young student sculptors from Goldsmiths have been here on a bursary. Writers who've used Peralta as a retreat include David Craig and Ann Spillard, Jan Marsh, TV writer and novelist Margaret Simpson as well as quite a number of American and Canadian authors.

Mary Rose Hayes is here at the moment, from Arizona, and it's been fascinating sharing experiences - publishing has been taking a knock in the states as well as the UK and our problems with agents and publishers have been much the same. Mary Rose writes what she describes as novels with elements of the erotic, romantic and horror genres. So far she's published 8 - some of them best sellers. Most recently she's collaborated with US Senator Barbara Boxer to write two political thrillers which I look forward to reading. Mary Rose spent quite a bit of time in Washington and gained some interesting insights into female political life there. She's currently writing a trilogy whose theme is how the tentacles of war reach down through the generations. It's being written backwards - the first volume set in the nineties, and the last one will be set during the second world war.

Mary Rose teaches creative writing at Arizona university and we decided, over a glass of wine, to run a creative writing course at Peralta in May - she will take the fiction module, while I will do the life writing and poetry. All we need now are students who can afford the air fare!

Monday, 24 August 2009

Tuscany Burning

I'm just off to Italy for some much-needed convalescence, so this will be my last post before I arrive. Like Greece, the Tuscan Alps also have a problem with wild-fires and recently the mountainside above Peralta - where Neil is working - has been blazing. He walked up the hill early the other morning and sent me these pictures of the fire as he casually strolled through.

It looks hot - but after weeks and weeks of miserable northern weather and a maximum of 17 degrees (this is summer?) I think I can take a little heat!

I'm looking forward to the relaxation, the Prosecco, and cafe life. I have a favourite cafe, run by two sixty-something men with grey pony tails and ragged jeans. The main attraction is going to the loo, where they play a tape of someone's sonorous voice reading Dante. It's quite hypnotic and people do seem to spend a lot of time in 'i servizi'! The tables are heaped with newspapers and poetry books, and it was here that I first came across Alda Merini 'one of the most powerful contemporary female poets writing in Italian' according to one review. I think some of her poetry is quite religious - content difficult for an aetheist - but the sound of it is utterly beautiful. I've never let my religious differences put me off Donne or Hopkins, so not Merini either. I'm learning Italian and hope to be able to understand it better in the original language soon.

Here's to practising! And I will remember to raise a glass of Prosecco to absent friends.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Good Advice

"Spend some time living before you start writing. What I find to be very bad advice is the snappy little sentence, 'Write what you know.' It is the most tiresome and stupid advice that could possibly be given. If we write simply about what we know we never grow. We don't develop any facility for languages, or an interest in others, or a desire to travel and explore and face experience head-on. We just coil tighter and tighter into our boring little selves. What one should write about is what interests one."

Annie Proulx

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Writers' Rooms

Space seems to be very important for writers. Hemingway and JK Rowling wrote in cafes; Katherine Mansfield liked 'transitional places', getting her ideas often in trains and hotel rooms. Wordsworth composed while on the hoof outdoors, Mrs Gaskell on the end of the kitchen table, the Bronte sisters round the fire in the Haworth parlour.

Even after twenty years of computer usage, I still write by hand before transferring it onto the screen. I seem to need that unbroken line between the brain and the hand for the words to trickle down onto the page. Later, I transfer the handwritten text to the keyboard, editing as I go. Both processes need space. When my children were small, writing space was difficult to find. I wrote a lot in the middle of the night when they were all in bed. But you can't always persuade your ideas to pop up only between the hours of 9pm and 3am! I would often write while shut in the bathroom for a few blissfully solitary moments, or in my car - scribbling at traffic lights, or parked outside the school. During the school holidays I used to go to the local library for a couple of hours. My very first biography was written under these conditions.

Now I have my own space, constructed specially for me by Neil. Lots of light, bookshelves, horizontal surfaces to litter with papers and books and - of course - the obligatory peace and quiet, high in the roofspace of the Mill. The windows have views only of the sky. On the walls I have family photographs, a painting of the farmhouse where I was brought up and a few mementos, including a literary award - just to remind me that it can happen. Self belief, it seems to me, is a very big percentage of any kind of creative art, and - perhaps - much more important than having the right space to do it in.

Where do you write? I'd love to know. For other 'Writers' Rooms' click here.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Memory Lines

I've had a birthday while doing battle with the SF virus and it set me thinking about my childhood. Then I read a post on another blog about antecedents and inevitably I began going back through my own family history, digging through boxes of letters and birth certificates, war medals, ration cards and old receipts. My family were hoarders! I'm lucky to have photos of my ancestors and to know quite a lot about their lives. This black and white photograph is of my mother's side of the family, outside a tiny terraced house in North Shields. Several of the younger children in the photo were still alive when I was a child, which makes it more precious.

I grew up first on a croft in the wild border lands between England and Scotland and then on a hill farm in a remote area of the Lake District.

One side of the family was Irish - cattle drovers and horse dealers - the others came from sea faring Italian and Scottish kin, who had settled in a north eastern sea port. Neither side had any money. But what they did have was a love of story telling. My earliest memories are of eavesdropping on grown-up conversations round the fireside, long after I was supposed to be in bed, and hearing them talk about ancestors who went across the sea on sailing ships to bring back cargos of bananas and marry exotic women; of others who drove herds of cattle from Ireland to London; or despaired over errant children, disinherited their offspring and fought bitterly over religion. These were stories they'd learned from their own grandparents. I was aware, even at nine or ten, that I was listening to an unbroken memory line going back two hundred years - stories passing like heirlooms from one generation to another. The tellers seemed to know exactly what great-great-great grandmother Bridie had said to her daughter Frances Theresa when she came home with a baby she wasn’t supposed to have - fathered by a footman at the house where she was in service. The fine rooms, the uniforms, the very porcelain crockery she washed in a lead lined sink were all there in the story, leaping like a hologram in the firelight before my eyes. The account of my great-great uncle Edward who had stood preaching the gospel of temperance outside his father’s pub on a Tyneside quay, was pure Catherine Cookson.

Not surprising that I was addicted to books from the time I could walk - as the photo proves. Fortunately I no longer have the pouter-pigeon tummy!

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

The Porcine Pestilence

I am writing this in bed, high on paracetamol, Tamiflu and dark chocolate - the only diet I can eat since I got swine flu. I've had three days of living with this alien life-form whizzing round in my blood and I'm not impressed. Apart from the headache, my throat is so sore that almost nothing trickles down (the leaflet helpfully gives instructions on how to take Tamiflu if you can't swallow!) and I can't even croak my name. Mercifully that lets me off answering the phone. And I have a cough that's like a gigantic wolf who's decided to come and live in my body against my will.

I've only got the computer's word for it that this is the genuine article, though. Not being able to speak meant that I had to go online to find out if my symptoms resembled those of the dreaded Porcine Pestilence. There were several pages of tick boxes which I expected to be followed by an advisory paragraph - you may/may not have swine flu - please contact etc etc. But what I got was an internet generated prescription code and the address of the nearest chemist with dire warnings not to go myself.

So, as the Man Himself is still in Italy, we have resorted to the rituals of Plague Britain. I leave money and a list under a stone outside the front door. Neighbours leave shopping and pills, ring the doorbell and run.

The laptop is a blessing. When I feel up to it, I can tap away on the duvet before dozing off again in preparation for another round of pills and chocolate. There are five days of this enforced isolation and I can't wait to feel well enough to want to escape!

Monday, 10 August 2009

The Dreaded Three O'clocks

I've been having an attack of the dreaded Three O'clocks. That is the time when, without fail, I wake up if I've got anything on my mind. Sometimes it's just that there's something urgently demanding to be written down, but most often it's because I'm worrying. The demons loom large at three o'clock.

It's not the sort of waking that's cosy, when you can lie there dozing in that dreamy state half in and half out of sleep. No, this is stark, wide-awake, with your blood pounding round your body and your mind racing at a hundred miles an hour. Impossible to lie still. I've learned from experience to get up, make a cup of tea (with biscuits!) and I pad through the house like a ghost, write a little, read a little, do email..... I go back to bed about five. In winter it's still dark, but in summer three o'clock is the start of the dawn chorus and by five the heron is fishing on the weir and the whole world is awake. Perversely - that's when I can go back to sleep!

At the moment, it's got a lot to do with a new project I'm fermenting. A novel this time. Which is a scary idea - my last one still hasn't found a publisher. But somehow without a book on the boil I feel like a sad Texan - 'all hat and no cattle'!

Monday, 3 August 2009

Films and Fiction

Just watched 'I've Loved you so Long' and feel utterly wrung out emotionally. The story is tragic, but it unfolds with such restraint and economy you simply aren't conscious of having your emotions manipulated by the director - which always has me pressing the off switch! I wasn't surprised to learn afterwards that the director -Philippe Claudel - is also a novelist - the film was made by someone who understands narrative and who isn't afraid of silence. The story was simply told without any filmic or narrative tricks and the viewer was invited to be present in every frame, watching and listening and being allowed to write their own story in the spaces they were given. The ending has been slated by some critics, but I found it tremendously powerful - I wept and wept. The final lines of the film are hugely significant, echoing back through the script. In the prison Juliette (Kristin Scott Thomas) had been called 'The Absent One', and outside she remains apart, unable to relate - saying at one point to a man who wants to get close 'Give me time, I'm not there yet.' At the end of the film, he comes into the house and calls up the stairs 'Lea? Juliette? Is anybody there?' and she answers - not 'Oui, je suis ici', but 'Oui, je suis là' - 'Yes, I'm there'. This is a film where the words - not just the images - matter.

Tried reading Two Caravans, because I'd enjoyed the Ukrainian Tractors book so much, but began skimming and eventually gave up in disappointment. It's well written, but somehow lifeless. That set me thinking about the second novel and the Two Book Deal. How young writers have been ruined by the insistence of publishers on a quick 'next book' to cash in on the success of the first. Then, when they have disappointing sales, they get dropped. And the only reason there are disappointing sales, very often, is that the second book is not the one the writer would have chosen to write if they'd been given time. When is the book trade going to get back to its roots? Surely it's all about books and readers? You have to value good writing (and know what it is), and give the readers what they enjoy reading. You also have to stretch them a little - surprise them. You also have to invest in nurturing writers without expecting them to be instant best-sellers. Catherine Cookson (one of the best selling authors of all time) didn't publish at all until she was nearly 50 and it took her ten years before she got into paper-back and into the best seller lists. Her books were passed from hand to hand and recommended by one reader to another and gradually her popularity increased. Her publishers must have sleepless nights thinking 'what if?' What if they had cut her off after the second book? Or even the fifth? At her peak Cookson's books and films were bringing in millions a week - as much revenue as a middle eastern oil sheikh!