Showing posts with label Leslie Wilson. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Leslie Wilson. Show all posts

Friday, 15 August 2014

One writer's blind Miriam Halahmy

Where do you come unstuck? I seem to have a regular list of minor blind spots and two major ones. Perhaps writing this blog will remind me what I have to watch out for and even throw up a couple of things I'd never even considered.
Join me on the journey through my litany of blind spots.

MINOR BLIND SPOTS ( and these are just the ones I can remember)

Just ..... why does it appear so often? Is it glued to my typing fingers? It is almost never necessary and yet it punctuates dialogue, thought, narrative comment as though it is the most essential word in the English dictionary.
Strike 1 : just ( almost always)

Suddenly ... I know, I know - it's a real struggle to avoid this when you want to move things on. But this is a word at times I almost wish had never been invented.
Strike 2 : suddenly just about everywhere possible. Think of another way. ( groan)

Commas.....I litter the first draft with them. Most of those you don't need either.
Strike 3 : commas ( a lot of the time)

Contractions ....this is the opposite to the Strikes - for some strange reason my first draft almost never contains contractions. My typing fingers seem to automatically speak in formal language - she had never told anyone and she knew he had not either. I don't speak like that and neither does anyone I know!
Correction : pretty well all places where there should be a contraction.

Exclamation marks... They litter the dialogue as though everyone is shouting but I simply can't see it the first time round and often not even the third time round. I'm still removing exclamation marks the morning I hovering to press Send to lovely agent.
Strike 4  : you honestly don't need more than about 4 in a 60,000 word novel.

MAJOR BLIND SPOTS  ( can I bear to be this honest?)

1. Impatience : I can't relax until I've completed the first draft - well, that's probably normal. I love redrafting - I really do. You get that long lovely time to enrich your plot, layer the characters, leak in those juicy bits of research you've been saving. But then after I've done about several major and minor redrafts the impatience sets in and I want to be DONE! That's where I have to try and reign myself in, put the manu to one side, focus on something else and try not to read it again for at least I week - I know, I know - I bet the rest of you leave it at least a month and you're RIGHT - but I'm too impatient.

Note to self : C'mon! Learn patience! It's never too late you old boot.

2. Switching the initiative away from the main character.
Now this is the really serious bit of this post and probably why I've written it - this is my biggest note to self. I think it is a combination of a serious blind spot and impatience. I have had three separate readers in my life for three separate manus point it out - the second one was an editor who loved the book otherwise. It always happens around the climax of the book. I get distracted by an idea for the plot and for a second main character, it takes hold, plays out like a film in my head and BINGO - the initiative swaps hands like a deck of cards. I convince myself its a great piece of writing ( and probably the actual writing is ok) but the book is in danger of disappointing the reader and unravelling before my eyes.

Note to self : Be honest! And slow down!

But I am also one very lucky writer because over the years I have been able to develop close, supportive, trusting relationships with some very talented writers, including Sassies, Leslie Wilson and Savita Kalhan, and they are willing to read my manus and be very honest when I'm stuck in that blind spot. Usually I know there is a flaw, I'm worried about bits of the book - but I need the firm clear objective eye of my lovely readers to feedback before I press that Send button.

I have just finished my seventh novel. My readers have already pointed out Major Blind Spot Number 2. It's a relief to be honest - I couldn't see it but I could FEEL it. Now I have the time over the summer to fix it - I already know how- and it's going to be great fun. Just wish I'd had the good sense to sort it out myself.
*sigh* - maybe next time - especially now I've written it in a blog post!

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

the border between fiction and reality, by Leslie Wilson

This is my last blog for ABBA for a while, and I feel sad, but with the imminent arrival of new twin grandsons (all being well) and a novel to finish off, and my gardening blog (Leslie Erika Wilson, Literary Gardener, do visit it if you haven't already), and The History Girls, I have to pull my horns in somewhere. But I have loved blogging here and will continue to read and enjoy other people's blogs!

So - the parting note.

There's a path that goes - well, somewhere, where the Chilterns slope down to the Thames near Reading, and it leads to a place on which I have based the house in my novel-in-progress. I walked it first in the winter, when I was finding the spot, and a winter path is very different from a summer path. It's in summer that a scene actually takes place there, so the Sunday before last, I asked David and the dog if they'd walk it with me again. Matilda always says yes to a walk - well, she's a dog - but David agreed too, and off we went..

It was a good thing I went, because the last time the ground was wintry and muddy, but in summer it's lined with loose flints. I think it was a road before it was a path, because you can see that it was made and hogginned or whatever the word is, with the flints. It's only the ones at the surface that are loose. This is where Jack, riding a bike along there with his mind in turmoil, has to come off his wheels and into a thorny bit of hedge.

When I wrote the scene, I had blackthorn in mind, because that was what I saw there in the winter, but now there are brambles scrambling everywhere, covered in delicious berries, which we and the dog snacked on.
There were also spindleberries and woody nightshade berries, lovely, but more or less poisonous; elderberries, which I don't care for, and enormous fat haws, which I do like to nibble. The other candidate for thorniness was the dog-rose at the start of the path.
But I found the spot I'd envisaged, and there were brambles there.

So Jack slithers on the loose flints now, and his bike tips him into the brambles. Poor Jack, it's early June, so he doesn't get to eat blackberries for comfort. Then my heroine turns up on her elderly horse, with a posse of dogs, and all the animals nose at him.
We walked on up the path till we came to the estate gates - and there I stopped. I couldn't for the life of me have gone through there now, because the house I've imagined is totally, completely different from the house that's there, and I wanted to leave my mind unmessed with.

So we turned back, because I knew what was REALLY beyond those gates; the world of my book, with all the characters.

Odd, in a way, that none of them came along the path to greet me. Or maybe just as well. They might complain at me for everything I've put them through.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Threatened Words, by Leslie Wilson

It's supposed to be the 'silly season', though the awful riots have rather knocked that one on the head. However, I have decided to be silly anyway - or maybe this isn't silly. Who knows?

A browse through your dictionary will reveal the problem the Society for the Preservation of Threatened Words (SOPTW) was set up to combat: there are all these words that are fading away because nobody uses them any more. Words, like dogs, need exercise. They don't need food or water, but someone has to give them a trot, in a nice suitable sentence. They can stand traffic, noise, bad smells, and exercising directly under the flightpath within a mile or so of a major airport - but failure to exercise them is death to them.

Blog-readers, do you want to do this to all these poor words? Condemn them to the awful fate of being OUTSA (Only Useful To Scrabble Addicts)?

However, the following list of words could be useful to Scrabble addicts, I have no problem with that, only do, please, look them up in the dictionary so that subsequent to getting your nice score on the board, you also give them the exercise they crave.

The challenge to my readers today is this: you are all concerned with words, one way or another, or you wouldn't follow ABBA. Please, please, give these words a walk - the Comments section is open below for you to do so. Subsequently, use them in a novel, or in conversation, or whatever. You will not only have done an act of great humanity, but will have enriched the English language (and maybe your Scrabble scores.)

CASTRAMETATION - the art of designing a camp.

GRABBLE - to grope, scramble or struggle.

HYLITHISM or HYLISM - materialism.

MISWEEN - to judge wrongly, have a wrong opinion of.

PONEROLOGY - the doctrine of wickedness

to POMPEY - to pamper

RECKLING - weakest, smallest, youngest of a littler or family, adj puny.

TOLSEY - a tollbooth or exchange

VISNOMY - physiognomy or face.

SEE IF YOU CAN USE ALL THESE WORDS IN ONE SENTENCE!!!! If you can, and the sentence is sufficiently fascinating, you will get a free copy of: My Life in the Fast Lane: The art of Exercising Threatened Words, edited by Jenkinson Hornswoggle, published on recycled dictionary paper, bound in composted leather, by Camera Obscura,$12-00 2007. (The Society's judgement on what is deemed to be fascinating is FINAL)

Disclaimer: The heading of this blog is in no way to be understood that I, Leslie Wilson, have ever in my life threatened a word.

ps. See today's Guardian at I believe it is in other newspapers, too! But this coincidence is clearly serendipitous (or clusionomietous)

Saturday, 16 July 2011

The Naming of Characters

So - you have a character in your book, and they have to have a name. First names are difficult enough. I have two baby's names books in my study, both very well thumbed, one in English, one in German. Sometimes a name attaches itself to a character at once, like Jenny's name in Saving Rafael - and Rafael's - or sometimes I change it several times before I find the one that's right.

In Saving Rafael, I called the horrible Nazi family next door some name I've forgotten, then decided that wasn't right, so I flicked through various German books I possess and found the name Mingers. I fell about laughing and decided this was the one. Young and older readers have appreciated the joke, so I am vindicated. The Gestapo man who interrogates Jenny is called Brenner, which means 'burner,' because I felt this gave a sense of someone who causes pain. Germans would get that more than English-speaking readers, but Mingers is a pun that will be lost in the German version (Nicht Ohne Dich, Boje Verlag, out now). Jenny's family name is Friedemann which means 'peace man' - I felt an appropriate name for a German Quaker and his family.

Sometimes place names are good for a character - like the inadequate missionary in The Mountain of Immoderate Desires. On a visit to the White Horse of Uffington, I saw the name of a village, Fawler, and thought, yes, that's right for the man, since he collapses under pressure. Sometimes I just take names off the spines of books in my study..but in my novel of the English witchhunt, Malefice, I took all the names of characters from the 17th century Parish Records in Waltham St Lawrence, the village on which I based my fictional Whitchurch St Leonard.

Graham Greene used very common names for his characters, for fear of being sued - Brown, Grey, Smith, etc… and I have sometimes invented German names and do a websearch on them to see if they come up. If they do, I have to invent again. You can sue for libel on behalf of the dead in Germany.. People who know about English poetry will comprehend why the vile concentration camp guard in Saving Rafael is called Grendel. It's not a German name.

For other, less sensitive characters' names, I have harvested them from the plates of apartment blocks in Germany, which is what I'm doing on the picture here.

On the other hand, reality does perpetrate jokes that one would hesitate to put into fiction. Opposite the orthodontist I used to go to in Mansfield Road in Nottingham was a greengrocer's called Flower, and a florist called Onion. I think they were just one house away from each other. And would an author, apart from a comic one, name the three hairdressers in a town Sharp, Blunt, and Brittle? That was in Kendal, in the 50s and 60s. My husband had two risk assessment colleagues called Dr Hope and Dr Luck. One could go on forever, and the correspondance column of the Guardian recently did..

How do other people decide on characters' names?

Friday, 3 June 2011

Phil Baker and Me

There's always been my brother, because he was older than me. I had no terrible adjustment to make(as he had, when I came along), having to share my parents' attention all of a sudden - on the contrary, I had a special person to tease me, torment me sometimes, and tell me stories. And to act stories out with.

On those evenings when my parents went out - either to the Youth Club they ran at the YMCA in Kendal, or to go dancing at a hotel in Windermere - Phil and I were left in the care of our poor grandmother, which was as good as being left with the cat to look after us, because she had mental health problems, and when we were naughty, all she did was to pray. God did not cause us to behave, I'm afraid, instead, we did exactly as we liked.

What fun we had! We'd go under one of our bedspreads and travel all over the world - to the North Pole, which was too cold, and the South Pole, which was too hot, a searing desert. I was so disappointed when Phil told me that he'd found out that the South Pole was actually cold, too. It seemed so pointless to have one Pole so exactly the same as the other, and it was years before I found out that this was not totally the case.

We'd play the 78 rpm records on the radiogram in the sitting room and act out exciting ghost stories to 'The Night on the Bare Mountain.' And on long rainy Lake District sunny afternoons, when our father was away leading a conference or training course somewhere, and our mother was studying for her external degree from London University, we'd act out the dramas of our respective king/queendoms, Philipland and Leslieland.

Mine was populated by teddy bears, his by cars. I can't remember the content of these dramas, except for once when Philipland invaded Leslieland and Phil claimed that my bear wasn't Allowed to defeat his tanks by sitting on them. Unfair!! But that was the kind of stand-off about the imaginative life that prepared me for negotiations with editors.

Later, he brought exciting books home from the library, like Candide, which I read with my eyes popping. Later still, when he was doing A-Levels and I was doing O-Levels, he introduced me to literary criticism my teachers hadn't told me about. Like John Dover Wilson, who taught me (quite rightly, I still feel) that Shakespeare should always be studied as something that takes place on stage, not read as a book.
By the time I was doing A-Levels, he was at Cambridge, and further stimulated my ideas. He always had the knack of making literature exciting - though it has to be said that sometimes, when I actually read the book or went to see the film or play, it wasn't as exciting as him talking about it, so he was clearly putting something of his own into it…

He read my poems and suggested alterations - he had started a poetry magazine at Cambridge. He was always encouraging and interested in my writing, even when it wasn't in any way outstanding. He was far more musical than I am - he played a multitude of stringed instruments - I was in the school choir, only - but I learned vestigial skills on his bouzouki, and we used to improvise together, and sing together - I feel that really helped build an ability to comprehend narrative structure in my brain, because I'm sure that the structure of storytelling is the same, at neurological level, as the structure of music. Now that I'm writing a novel whose main characters are in a band, he's being characteristically generous and imaginative with advice and information.

I think it's often parents who are acknowledged as Formative Influences - and certainly our parents were that, providing me with an endless hoard of source material, both as villains and heroes. They were amazing people who contributed much in their respective fields, but though they thought it'd be great if I became a writer, they were very prescriptive about the way we should live, and about the kind of things I should write. When I didn't follow their spec, they were outraged.

It was my brother who first shared that imaginative space with me, and then encouraged me to find my own voice.

Thanks, Phil!

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Children of the Revolution; Leslie Wilson

I adored historical fiction when I was a kid - a fact that's hardly surprising to anyone who knows my work! Only I found quite a lot of what was on offer a bit depressing. Stories about Kings and Queens, or about ordinary people who were devoted to Kings and Queens and recognised their inferiority.

I loved The Children of the New Forest for the way in which it portrayed the life of the children, suddenly having to learn to hunt and cook and keep house in the country. But there was an uneasiness, for me, about the story about the Restoration and the way in which the Puritan Intendant (forgive me if I've got this wrong, but I don't think so) turns out to have been scheming for the return of the monarch all the way along. Because my family were on the side of the Parliament - my Grandad, a Methodist lay preacher and staunch Liberal, once wrote an essay about his admiration for Oliver Cromwell, which my brother still possesses.

Then - aged about eleven, maybe? I read Trumpets in the West, by Geoffrey Trease. It's about the Glorious Revolution, when William of Orange superseded the last Catholic monarch of Britain. It made me happy that Trease didn't endorse the persecution of Catholics; the issue, as he (I think correctly) portrays it, wasn't about resistance to James Stuart's Catholicism, but about the ongoing conflict between King and Parliament. The regime-change that happened then was about Parliament's key role in a nascent democracy, about resisting the Stuarts who would have loved to introduce French-style absolute monarchy. Trease's hero and heroine are a young musician, Jack Norwood, who finds himself standing up for his principles, risking his career and his life in the process, and Jane, a girl who flouts her aristocratic background to become a real, professional singer. It's an issue-novel, but a gripping adventure and I was thrilled by it.

I kept reading Trease; The Crown of Violet, set in Athens, the first democracy; Follow My Black Plume about Garibaldi's nineteenth-century uprising in Italy; Thunder of Valmy, a novel that showed all the idealism and joy that fuelled the beginning of the French Revolution. And Comrades for the Charter, which portrays the Chartist movement, not in terms of 'what a pity they were undisciplined and turned to violence', but as a movement that turned to violence reluctantly, only because the authorities wouldn't grant to the visionary Chartists liberties that we now take for granted. Liberties that they shed their blood for.

Trease had great heroines, too, who took risks, had adventures along with the boys, who had aspirations, not just to be the cleaners-up and admirers of heroes, but to achieve something themselves. The 'feisty' heroine is right there in Trease's novels, up to date and capable. Girls who had better things in mind than being WAGS - or marrying a Prince and entering on a life of expensive and boring public duties.

And yes, I am writing this blog, on this subject, because of the expensive wedding that's happening tomorrow. Because, like Geoffrey Trease, I don't define patriotism as slavish admiration of a particular group of people, of a monarch who rules by the accident of birth, in a patriarchal system of succession that actually contravenes the law of the land - and whose family can engage in all kinds of skulduggery and get away with it because Parliament isn't, for some reason, allowed to criticise them.

But I can also see, as I write, how much Trease has set his mark on my own writing; like him, I like to portray the lives of 'ordinary' people who're caught up in history and have to act, even if, like Jack Norwood, they really only want to get on with their lives. So thank you, Geoffrey Trease, for those stories. And for the example!!

Friday, 11 February 2011

Contains Language and sex

I have had a complaint about my writing, from someone who wanted to know why I had to include 'contrived' sex and swearing into my novel Saving Rafael. I was a bit puzzled by the 'contrived', I must say. Did she think it was artificial in some way?
I don't actually automatically insert sex into my plots, only when it feels right. In this case, with two teenagers (one sixteen, one eighteen) in a highly dangerous situation in wartime, deeply in love, it seemed to me rather unlikely that they'd refrain. I thought they'd want to make love while they had the chance. The incidence of extra-marital sex during wartime is usually supposed to go up.
As for swearing; yes, there are a few incidence of 'shit' and 'damn' in the book. These occur usually at moments of great strain; and really, if you've just heard that a dear childhood friend has been killed in battle, maybe you might feel like saying 'damn it', especially if you're a Jew in Berlin in 1942 and your life has been pretty stressful over the last few years. Similarly - if you are sheltering in the cellar of a hotel that bursts into flames over your head during an air-raid, you've been fighting the blaze with a stirrup-pump and some buckets, and the water supply fails - I think it is likely that you might say something a bit stronger than 'oh, bother.'
But this isn't just about me and my books, rather about what is appropriate for the young to read. It rather links to the edition of To Kill a Mockingbird which I gather has been put out in the States with the n-word taken out of it. So - one cannot write an anti-racist book - one that has inspired generations of kids and adults - if one includes the perjorative term common at the time. Even if the point is to demonstrate that racism is wrong. Celia Rees has written on this blog about censorship of sex in kids-lit - unless it Ends Badly and they get their Just Desserts, and I've heard teachers in a staffroom deplore Jacqueline Wilson because the situations she describes are 'too realistic.' My complainant is not a one-off. These people are real and they're out there, tut-tutting as we write.
Do they believe that if we were to portray a world in which kids do not swear, shoplift, bully each other, experiment with drugs, or get drunk or make love to each other, the young will be inspired to abjure these behaviours? Or is it just that some adults are afraid to have their fantasies of stainless childhood disturbed? The books available to me in my teens were a lot more prissy - but we were all reading Fanny Hill in brown paper covers under the desk during Religious Education.
My belief, and my writing credo, if you like, is that I write, whether for adults or for teens, not only to entertain and enjoy the act of storytelling and description, but to engage with the world. My own reading of fiction does subtly change the way I see things, not to mention breaking down the barriers between my experience, sorrows, joys and annoyances, and other people's. I don't want to be taken into a sanitised world. where real feelings are suppressed in order not to be upsetting - now that is really what I call contrived!

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Never Again! Miriam Halahmy and Leslie Wilson

For the past year Leslie Wilson and I have been having ‘a big conversation.’ Leslie is half English/ half German. I am Anglo/Jewish. We both believe that dialogue is the way to build bridges across divided communities and to promote healing and reconciliation.  We regard our deepening friendship as a contribution towards the defeat of Hitler and Nazism. We therefore decided to do a joint blog for Holocaust Memorial Day 2011.   


Memorial to 7000 Jews of the town of Kerch, Crimea, shot in an anti-tank ditch.

 As a Jewish child growing up in England after the Holocaust I saw the faces of my grandparents on the victims in the newsreels. However for my friends the victims looked like foreigners, a people far away about whom they knew almost nothing.
 The Nazis organised the rounding up and murder of one and a half million Jewish children and I often thought, That could have been me. My family come from Poland, right in the heart of the killing fields.
Memorial in  Poland

But the Nazis threatened all children. Every single German child whether their background was Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Black, gay, gipsy or political was at risk. Kitty Hart who survived Auschwitz and a death march says, “We believe it can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime.” She has given her testimony since 1946 and has even taken neo-Nazis back to Auschwitz.
Like most Jews of my generation I have absorbed a lot of material about the Holocaust and a huge spectrum of emotions. Ultimately I believe that the cry of the Jewish people at the end of the war, Never Again! is underpinned by promoting dialogue across divided communities. Human rights prevail in an atmosphere where all people are regarded in the same equal non-judgemental way. Every young person should be encouraged to contribute to this goal and fiction can help to provide the route map forward. A fourteen year old girl said this week at an HMD workshop, “I now think of all the people who died as individuals.”

In my debut YA novel, HIDDEN, Meadowside, March 2011, I have focused on immigration law and human rights through the eyes of an ordinary English teenage girl. Alix befriends Samir in her school when he is bullied for being foreign and together they hide a tortured, desperate asylum seeker to save him from being deported.

 If we are to build bridges across communities then we need to understand that there is no hierarchy of suffering. Everyone must contribute to the dialogue if Holocaust Memorial Day is to make a difference. We are all citizens of the world!

We need to remember and mourn the victims, that’s a way of defying Hitler, who wanted them to be obliterated without trace. And yet - if ‘Never Again’, the words that I saw written on the monument to the dead at Dachau, is to mean anything, I am certain that we need also to think about the perpetrators.

Photo courtesy of Scrapbookpages

Growing up in post-war Britain, I so often heard people say: ‘The Germans should have done something to resist Hitler.’ The image of the German, man, woman and child, was always of the goose-stepping, Heil-Hitlering, rabidly anti-Semitic fanatic. A nation of ‘things’ as the text of the Belsen newsreel put it, disguised as humans, but not really so. Even for the next generation of Germans – to whom I partly belong, it could be an easy way out. There was something wrong with them, I wouldn’t act the way they did. End of story.

I remember hearing an American tour guide taking a group of teenagers round Dachau. ‘Imagine’, she kept saying, ‘what it was like for them.’ I thought yes, imagination was what was discouraged in the 3rd Reich. You didn’t ask questions, you didn’t think about what it was like for those other people. But that’s precisely what fiction invites us to do. Even more than history. Fiction can make us feel what it was like to be there, making frightening decisions; to imagine what it’s like to have the Gestapo in your house, to be standing, facing the wall, while armed men turn everything upside down hunting the Jew you have hidden there. Or what it’s like to not help. To be scared, because you know what happens to the people who’re caught helping. And – remember this – those people are described as scum by the authorities. The lowest of the low. And your country’s at war, and you’ve been told the Jews are on the side of the people you’re fighting. You’ve even been told that the war was forced on you.

I’m not saying this to excuse; I’m saying it because I think if we can understand what made ordinary human beings turn their backs on their fellow-citizens, or even denounce them to the authorities – and even join the death squads who forced them to dig their own graves and then shoot them as they stood naked and shivering – then we can perhaps act differently in future – whether the groups under threat are Jews, Muslims, asylum-seekers, Roma people, gay people  - who knows? And the key is to understand that the Germans, and anti-semites and Roma-haters too – of other nations who went along with the Germans to help the murders - were ordinary people. It was an ordinary Dutch person who informed on the Frank family. So - what would we do?

I don’t write propaganda, I am a storyteller – but I know stories are part of our society and contribute to its thoughts. I was so glad when one teenager wrote about my novel ‘Last Train from Kummersdorf’: ‘It makes you think: what if?’

View HMD website and trailer here.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Does it matter if the Emperor is really naked?

Over Christmas I’ve been reading Thomas Mann’s ‘Royal Highness’ (first published 1909)– which is published in the UK by Vintage. It’s rather different from the rest of Mann’s work – though he actually wrote it about the role of the artist in society – an early-twentieth-century conception of the artist which saw him/her as a being essentially set apart from everyday life – it’s a Ruritanian romance – impoverished grand-ducal prince falls in love with American millionaire’s daughter and finally marries her. Though themes of madness, disease, a crazy dog, an insane countess, and a rose that smells of decay run through the novel, its subject-matter is an up-market treatment of one of the penny-novelette themes of the time.
Re-reading it for the first time since university – and for the first time since I became a published author – I found it hard work. Granted, I find ‘The Magic Mountain’ hard work, but that is for different reasons. There are many touches of humour and wonderful writing that show that the novel is really written by the Thomas Mann who wrote the wonderful ‘Buddenbrooks’ but my judgement, after reading it was that a novel of 381 pages (this comment, as Amazon likes to say about customer reviews, refers to the German version, the length of the English one may be different) has about as much proper, publishable material as a novella. It should have been cut, cut, cut.
Now Thomas Mann’s work is not where you would expect to find brief, punchy writing, but whereas his other works are meaty, and all those pages are stuffed full of intelligent and and thought-provoking subject-matter, I found this one sadly repetitious and full of empty narrative spaces. He spends far too much time describing domestic interiors, for example – I kept thinking I was reading World of Interiors magazine and wondering where the photographs would come. (They’d be taken by Fritz von der Schulenburg of course.)
Mann famously (well, famously in Germany) refused to cut ‘Buddenbrooks’, and I think there he was right. I wouldn’t miss a word of that wonderful novel. But he should have cut ‘Royal Highness’. Mind, the early twentieth-century critics had different reasons for greeting it with less than enthusiasm: the ‘Happy End’ and the operetta-atmosphere of the whole thing. ‘A descent into the flat land of optimism,’ one critic called it, while another remarked that ‘German novels should end tragically, in downfall, in the twilight of the Gods.’ (The history of the next thirty-six years provided plenty of material for such literature, but I won’t go there now.)
Of course novels were much longer in the past, and that it’s wrong to apply modern-day criteria to them – but I do honestly think that ‘Royal Highness’ has survived hostile crits, is in the canon, still published even – and translated into I dunnamany languages – just because it’s been buoyed up by the author’s other work. And of course because it provides material for students of German literature to chomp.
My question is: does it matter? Does it matter if some ordinary person picks up this slightly flabby novel and thinks this has to be good writing, because everyone respects it, because the rest of Mann’s work is brilliant? Clearly it doesn’t matter to the publishers. They can sell it. If they couldn’t, it’d be for the scrap-heap licketty-split. We all know THAT.
But that’s my question for the New Year: is a work of fiction good if the public has been persuaded it is, or is there such a thing as intrinsic literary merit?

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Experimental writing, by Leslie Wilson

From time to time people say it might be a good idea for authors to take on board the way in which other media work, and incorporate it into their writing mode. I am impressed by this, and thought I might try it. I’m thinking about the kind of tv programme that not only shows its subject matter, but also breaks to show the preparations for filming, the presenters and other programme-makers in their time off, etc. So I wondered how a work of fiction would function in this way. I thought I’d use my own novel Last Train from Kummersdorf to illustrate the modus operandi. So: here goes.

They were rolling the blankets up when the old woman got down out of her waggon and went into the trees to do her business. Coming back, she called out to them.
‘Good morning. Are you off already?’
On the off-chance, Hanno asked: ‘Have you got any sausage? For another fag?’
Frau Rupf hesitated, then she winked at Hanno – she had a soft spot for him, he did right to be cheeky. Stealthily, she walked to the waggon, fished about among the sacks, did something in there and came to him with her hands behind her back. She winked again.
‘Which side?’
‘Either,’ said Hanno. He wasn’t going to play children’s games.
She showed him a good piece of sausage, about two centimetres thick, ten centimetres wide, real meat, pocketed with fat. Worth a fag, there was enough for him and Effi both. But old Rupf wasn’t after cigarettes this morning.
‘Give me a kiss.’ Her voice had gone soft, sentimental.

End of the day! Leslie goes into the kitchen and meets her daughter, Kathy, who’s at home, having returned from two years’ VSO in China. She’s doing work experience at Oxfam and financing herself by doing part-time work.
Leslie: ‘How was Autotrader?’
Kathy: ‘Someone got really angry with me. It wasn’t even anything I’d done! He said his advert hadn’t appeared in the paper. What’s for dinner? Shall I help you?’
Leslie: ‘Thanks. We’re having chicken provencale. Can you chop some peppers? You’re really good at that?’
Kathy (fetching chopping board and knife): ‘How’s the book coming on?’
Leslie: ‘Not bad at all. I’ve got to chapter ten, now. They’ve just spent a night in a wood and met some of the other main characters. Frau Rupf. She’s from Silesia, you know, where Grandma came from…’
Fadeout. Next day, Leslie is at the keyboard again, typing busily.

He kissed her old dry cheek, thinking he was only doing it for the meat, but then he found himself half-liking her. She had guts.
‘Now go away,’ she said. ‘I don’t want my daughter to know what I’ve been up to.’
They ate the sausage on the way back to the westward road. It was wonderful.
‘I’m not going to look like that when I’m old,’ said Effi.
‘How can you get out of it?’

At this point, Leslie tries to print and discovers that there’s no ink left in the printer. She rummages in the drawer and discovers that she hasn’t, after all, got a spare ink cartridge. We see her go out, go to the car, open the door and drive off.
In Office World
Leslie: ‘I’m looking for one of these ink cartridges, but I can’t see one out?
Shop assistant: ‘I’ll go and look for you.’
Focus on Leslie.
Leslie: I’m feeling really frustrated because I want to be writing more than anything else, but any time I get among stationery, I still have to look and I want to buy all kinds of crazy things, like these nice heart-shaped post-its -’
Assistant returns. ‘Here you are.’
Leslie: ‘Thank goodness for that.’ Goes to checkout. View of nice pink heart-shaped post-its going towards the till..

There were hardly any refugees on the road yet, but after a while they heard an engine running behind them and turned round to see a big silver car, dulled with dirt. There was a woman in the back wearing furs, you could see her felt hat inside the ruff of fuzzy darkness, a curl of smoke, a pair of made-up eyes. The driver blew his horn at them.
‘Lucky bitch,’ said Effi. Look at the fur coat. Sable. One day I’m going to have a coat as nice as that. Hey, d’you think it’s Eva Braun?’

Leslie suffers a total failure of imagination.
Leslie: ‘Only one thing for it. I need chocolate! Searches in fridge. No chocolate. Searches in storm porch. Still no chocolate. Now she gets her handbag and cycling clothes: if she cycles to the shop for chocolate, probably it will burn up the calories she gets from eating it.
In the future such novels will be able to include mini-MRI scans of writerly thoughts going round in her head as she cycles down the hill to Waitrose. After all, we do a lot of work when not at our desks.

And sometime, maybe, we’ll get back to the story...

Friday, 22 October 2010

Soundtracks Again

‘What is your soundtrack?’ Miriam Halahmy wrote on Monday. My soundtrack is often the noise of bombs whining down, of artillery bombardment, of planes strafing civilians, things I’ve never heard, but that my mother – she told me once – relived when I was in utero, which maybe explains why all through my childhood I was terrified when I heard a siren. I mean the air-raid type sirens which were in use in the ‘50s. There was one that used to go off from Kendal quarry every day and I never got used to it. Maybe it was an air-raid siren working out its time. But the bells that ring out over the ruined city of Berlin in Saving Rafael – German churchbells, not the severe mathematical patterns we hear in this country, but a cluster of notes rung together in harmony – come from the Christmas record that was always played in my childhood home. I can hear them in my mind now.

Music affects me in two ways when I’m writing. Firstly, there’s the music that actually occurs in the novel – a lot of Django Reinhart and Louis Armstrong in Last Train from Kummersdorf and there’s a particular track on my Charlie Parker box set from the ‘40s – ‘Dizzy Boogie’ – which has really lit up the jazz I write about in the novel I’m working on at present. But I will say no more about work in progress.. When I was writing Saving Rafael, I had a cd called ‘Berlin by Night’ which contained popular music from Germany in the Nazi period. Not, I hasten to add, Nazi songs, but songs ranging from ‘Lili Marleen’ to disguised jazz, given a German title and lyric to make it more acceptable to the authorities. It has ‘Es geht Alles Vorüber’, the smash hit of the end of the war, the one that people kept listening to. Its message: ‘Everything passes, everything goes by, and every December is followed by May’ annoyed Propaganda Minister Goebbels – not martial enough – but that made no difference. My mother associated it, bitterly, with the letter she got telling her her first love had been killed in action – but she did have her Maytime after all, when she met my British father.

I listened to that cd over and over again, and composed the ‘theme lyric’ for the novel, in slight imitation of a terribly shlocky number that had me frankly laughing my head off. Jenny, in the novel, knew it was trash, but because it was playing the first time she realised Raf was interested in her, it got terribly important to her.

And yet – the scene where my young hero reaches across the table and starts playing with Jenny’s fingers comes, not from any of those contemporaneous songs, but from Tchaikowsky’s Violin Concerto (in D Major, I believe). I’d been wondering how to write that scene just before I was taken abruptly into hospital to have a tumour taken out of my spine. The second night after my surgery, I had a dreadful moment when I woke up and thought: ‘Somebody’s in pain,’ and then realised it was me – just as authors describe in many novels, and I always thought they’d made it up! But the thing that made me cry was that I thought I’d lost my novel.

I got some more opiates from the nurses, pulled myself together – they were dealing with an emergency in the room and the last thing they needed was an author agonising – and then the next morning I was listening to the Tchaikowsky on my personal stereo and suddenly I was in the Café Kranzler again. I’d found the novel! Such a relief, because honestly, it was an awful moment, and I realised how important a companion the novel I’m working on is to me.

Tchaikowsky wrote the concerto as a love-letter to a young violinist – who didn’t reciprocate his affection – but it is the most passionate, flirtatious, wonderful bit, and the part of the slow movement I was listening to was just like someone playing with their loved one’s fingers. I had something to write on, so I reached out – I had to lie flat in bed – and scrawled it down.

There’s a jazz cd by Abdullah Ibrahim called ‘Water from an Ancient Well’ that my brother gave me, that I often had playing on my computer while I was writing Kummersdorf. Music so often releases something in me, and it’s vitally important to me for that reason. I can’t imagine writing without music. If I didn’t have any of the machines that are our personal musicians nowadays, I’d have to sing for myself. Perhaps that would be better, who knows?

But I’m a twenty-first century writer, born in the twentieth century. My childish imagination was fired by ‘Music and Movement’ and by the stacks of wonderful glossy records, ‘78s, that lived in our Kendal house with us – my parents didn’t have a lot of money, so I guess they'd found these in the cellar when we moved in.

Anyway, I have wonderful memories of my brother and me, on wet Lake District days, putting on 'The Night on Bald Mountain,' and dancing excitedly to it. And that music surfaced years later when I wrote my novel about a witch persecution in the 17th century, Malefice.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Facts and Fiction; by Leslie Wilson

The picture is of my grandfather in German police uniform in Cologne after the war. If you enlarge the image you'll see the little puncture marks where the Nazi-era medals have been removed.
I was commenting on extreme departures from historical fact in a kids’ book about the Holocaust, and somebody said to me: ‘Leslie. It’s fiction.’ I didn’t answer that, just thought about it. Because I have written two books about Nazi Germany myself, and getting it as right as possible really matters to me.

Before I go further, I have to say that I do view what I write as fiction, absolutely not works of history. Entertainment, even. I invent characters, and even if I wrote about people who actually existed, I’d still want to use my imagination to write scenes for which there is no documentary evidence. But – and this is very important to me – I like to know that the documentary evidence makes what I write probable and therefore feasible. So, when I wrote about a young girl who has a romantic relationship with a Jewish boy she’s hiding, I feel happier because I have read accounts by survivors who were hidden by their girlfriends. And I have on my shelves approximately 3m of books about Nazi Germany, ranging from the wonderful 4-volume Noakes and Pridham: Nazism, A Documentary Reader, to survivor stories in English and German; my mother’s memoir of her childhood in Nazi Germany; family letters, dvds of the bombing of Berlin, historical maps and timetables; and analytical books like Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, which should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand how people can commit atrocities.

Does this mean that I am hampered in my writing by so much research? No, I don’t think so. I use the books, sometimes to read myself into a sense of the period, sometimes because I need to check the facts. If I’m going to say that certain restrictions – like not being able to buy meat or new clothes – were inflicted on Berlin’s Jewish population at a particular date, I check it out in Noakes and Pridham. The fact-checking certainly makes me a slower writer. But I don’t, I hope, ever bludgeon my readers with chunks of information just to show that I’ve done my homework. The story is paramount, but it must be founded on something real.

In addition, one often finds things out that are better than anything one could make up, or which solve narrative problems. Like the escape hatches between cellars that were part of German air-raid precautions. I saw the construction of one on a German dvd of the bombing. That became part of a scene in Saving Rafael which I based on a story my mother told me, about being trapped beneath a blazing hotel in Berlin. Her story was far too good not to use, but her experience had been so traumatic that her memory had blanked some parts of the story out. I had to do quite a lot of reading – from a book I have called Berlin Im Zweiten Weltkrieg (Berlin in World War 2) and watching the dvd, to work out how she and the others could have escaped. Also, on the topic of bombing, I read a diarist of the period saying: ‘I’d never seen so many people weeping on the streets,’ which gave me the image of people walking through the blazing streets, dragging stuff they’d managed to save from their homes, crying. Why make that up, when the facts are so powerful?

But do I regard myself as better than people who aren’t so thorough in their research? No, that would be very arrogant of me. I said in my July blog, that I love to time-travel. It’s my adult equivalent of going through the wardrobe door into Narnia. But I have always been fascinated by history, and wanted to know how things really were. I used to be so frustrated, as a kid, if I read a historical novel (and I read a lot of them) and then discovered that it had distorted or misrepresented the facts which I had taken on trust. I felt cheated.

When it comes to Nazi Germany, though, this desire to know is far more than mere interest. I am half German, and, since I grew up in the aftermath of the war, I heard many harsh and often hateful things said about Germans. Later, I discovered about the Holocaust, and some people told me that there was a fundamental, genetic flaw in the German identity, they were all monsters. ‘But you’re OK, you’re British.’ Only I wasn’t entirely. Like many other British people I have a heritage – and one I that is important to me – that doesn’t originate from these islands. And I loved my mother and grandmother dearly and I knew they weren’t monsters. I used to say, fiercely: ‘People are people!’ by which I meant that anyone – including black ‘immigrants’, who were being rather heavily demonised at that time - were human beings – you couldn’t define them by their nationality or race.

My parents wanted to discourage me from dwelling on what my father described as ‘Germany’s shame.’ It wasn’t loyal to my mother, I was told. But my mother wasn’t an easy person, and as I grew up, our relationship got more and more fraught. Then there was my grandmother who lived with us until she died. She was mentally ill and wandered round dressed like a peasant, fasting, praying, fanatically cleaning the house, and apparently doing penance for some terrible sin. ‘Poor little children,’ she used to say to my brother and me, ‘being born into this world.’ I knew my grandfather had been persecuted at the beginning of the Nazi period, and yet he had become a major in the police force, and, incidentally, a harsh, scary man who I found it hard to love. All of these things had a lot to do with the war and Nazi Germany, and I became less and less inclined to be content with the version of facts that my mother doled out to me – though of course much of it was fascinating and, when she wrote her own memoir, illuminating.

I wrote Last Train from Kummersdorf, which seeks to understand the mindset of a kid who’s been fed Nazi propaganda, after my mother’s death, initially because I went to see Schindler’s List and realised I needed to write about Nazi Germany, but then in order to comprehend the society my mother grew up in and perhaps understand a bit more about her. In the middle of writing that novel, I found out about my grandfather, who was indeed persecuted. I went to Berlin and read his file. The more I learned and understood about Nazi Germany, the more I myself walked and lived in it through the medium of my characters, the more I came to understand. I do know that my grandmother’s mental distress was brought on by a law passed by Hermann Goering in 1945 – no wonder she said Hitler was Antichrist. She said that in the mental hospital in 1939, and my mother was terrified she’d be murdered. Plenty of mentally ill people were.

So – I myself need to know. But now I shall get on my tub and thump. I think there is a danger in propagating, even through the medium of fiction, easy and inaccurate assumptions about the Holocaust. It’s a period that has been more mythologised, maybe, than any other. It stands in the middle of human history, even after sixty-five years in which dreadful crimes against humanity have been committed, as the epitome of human savagery. But if we are to say ‘Never Again’ – an assertion which can bring on a fit of despair when one thinks of Pol Pot, of Rwanda, of our own country’s willingness to connive with torture – if one is to say this in any realistic way, I do believe we have to understand how these crimes get committed. Fiction, and the imagination, are part of that process, which cannot be carried by works of history alone. And if we fail to pay attention to the nuts and bolts of that, if we play off mythologised fantasies against an unreliable background – well then, it’s too easy to avoid confronting uncomfortable truths, and we won’t help the process of understanding.

I’ll come off the tub now.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

writing in august by Leslie Wilson

It feels strange, writing in august. Back when my kids were little, or even young, I usually abandoned the attempt and just became Mum for the period of the holidays when we weren't on holiday, as well as when we were. I used to start writing again in September, when we returned, the weather was cooler, and they were back at school.

Now August is when everyone else is away, my email box fills up only slowly, and the traffic in town is non-existent. It is easy to get parked in Waitrose - I don't need to go on a writer's retreat, the world has ebbed away from me. Unfortunately this year there are a lot of things that need doing to the house, and a major window-replacement-operation looms towards the end of the month - but I am still enjoying the sense of freedom. A holiday! I can get on with Writing my Stories.

In addition, I have the garden. August is harvest, beans, mangetouts, courgettes, onions, spinach beet, kohlrabi, tomatoes, chillies and aubergines. The figs and autumn-fruiting raspberries are coming on and ripe windfall apples are bumping off the Tydeman's Early Worcester tree. Soon I shall just be able to wander out and pick myself an apple when I want a snack while writing! We harvested the garlic in July and I can go and admire the 50-odd bulbs which will take us through the year. And there are the pumpkins.

They are magic, though I'm not sure if I can fulfil my daughter's request to reserve one as transport to her wedding next May. It might have got a bit wrinkly by then. I grow two kinds, one large, one small. The large one is illustrated above, this is the Enormous Pumpkin, the biggest of all, which must weigh close on five kilograms. It's a Crown Prince, and ripens to steel-grey, at present it is like the sea on a dull day, silver-green - I love it. The little ones are the apricot-coloured ones, they fit in the palm of your hand, they are called Jack Be Little, and would actually be perfect to take a miniature Cinderella to the ball in. They mature to a rich orange, and come ripe all the time, a lovely alternative to courgettes. But they keep too, and when I find unsuspected ones they won't have rotted. My pumpkins are like free-range hens, they ramble around and decide for themselves where to lay their massive or small eggs. Up to me to find them - I recently discovered a whopper smugly lying against the fence, shielded by leaves. Though shortly the leaves will have to come off, to assist the ripening process.

What has this got to do with writing? Well, it's odd, but it feeds into it. Of course the pumpkins also feed me in the literal way, but there's something about having them - they are planted in a raised bed just outside my study window, though (see above) they have sprawled away from it to actually fruit - the excitement of seeing them get huge, seeing the colours change, gloating over their size and weight - that helps me to write. So, the current answer to the question so frequently asked of writers: 'What do you do when you get stuck?' is: 'I go outside and inspect my pumpkins.' Later I shall inspect them stored in the house. Some people grow decorative gourds and don't eat them. I grow lovely pumpkins and then they get eaten. You opens your seed catalogue and you takes your choice.


Thursday, 8 July 2010

Five Fantastic Routes into the Past by Leslie Wilson

My first route into the past is 'A Traveller in Time' by Alison Uttley. For those who don’t know it, it’s the story of a girl – in the early years of this century – who goes to stay with an aunt and uncle in an ancient farmhouse in Derbyshire, Thackers, which used to be part of a manor belonging to the Babington family. The narrator, Penelope, who is delicate, finds the fabric of the present day wears thin and she slips through it into the sixteenth century where she makes friends and – inevitably – one dangerous enemy. She gets caught up in a plot to help Mary Queen of Scots escape, and falls hopelessly in love with the younger Babington boy, Francis.
I think what makes the book really come to life is Uttley’s own intimate childhood knowledge of the area she writes about. Not that I want to ignore the brilliant storytelling,wonderful cadences of her writing style, the quicksilver, easy-sounding dialogue, the characters who walk off the page. But what delights me most in the book are the descriptions, precise and beautiful as a Book of Hours; the garden with the warm scent rising from the herbs in the sunshine, of the kitchen, with Aunt Tabitha kneading a huge trough of creamy bread-dough; the marchpane Thackers that Penelope makes in the sixteenth century which, foreshadowing the doom of the family, is the farmhouse of the early twentieth century, with the shields broken, part of the building become cowsheds, no longer a manor, because Babington suffered the horrific traitor’s death for his later plot against Elizabeth the First, the one that’s in the history books. This is the book that made me into a historical novelist, that made me want to go ‘through the door’ and inhabit times not my own.

There was a poem, too. Kipling’s The Road Through the Woods>. I read it in Come Hither, a magical anthology that was at my primary school. I adored that book and have got it for myself now.
‘If you enter the woods
Of a summer evening late..
You will hear the beat of a horse’s feet
And the swish of a skirt in the dew..’
The old road has been shut, and now it’s lost beneath the coppices and the heath – probably somewhere around Ashdown Forest. But in one sense, the road is still there, and anyone who has the imagination can go through the gate and look for the traces.

Old Guidebooks take you through the door, too. When I was writing my novel for adults, The Mountain of Immoderate Desires, I used The Hong Kong Guide 1893, reprinted by Oxford University Press in 1986. Here I could not only discover the principal sights for tourists to the colony, lists of hotels, schools, places of worship, and the Peak Tram, but find out the legalised tariff of fares for Chairs, Jinrickshas and Sampans. It cost you ten cents to take a chair for half an hour within the city area, with two bearers, but you could book one for the whole day for a Hong Kong dollar. A sampan for an hour would cost you ten cents. The Peak Tramway, at that period, went every quarter of an hour between 7.30 and 10.30 a.m, only every half an hour between 11.30 and 2.30; after that you could get it every quarter of an hour again. It closed down for the night at This are the small details that show you the kind of life your characters led. Then there are the adverts: looking at them somehow transports me back in time, Nice to see too, that perfumes, medicines, and mineral waters could be bought, then as now, from Watson’s the Chemists.
While I was writing The Mountain of Immoderate Desires, I didn’t visit Hong Kong at all, but relied on my memories of Western District – where were still, at that time, plenty of old Chinese streets - and the endless supply of facsimile editions and books of old photographs that publishers – mainly OUP – had obligingly printed. I walked the old city in my head and, the first time I visited the place after finishing it, I looked across from Kowloon to Hong Kong side and saw – for a few moments - a transparency of the old city superimposed on the modern high-rises.

In 1995, just after my father’s death, I went to Vienna with my husband, who had a conference. I went round on my own, and one of the things I did was to visit the Michaelergruft, the crypt of the Church of St Michael, just outside the Hofburg. There was a private party going round, with their own guide, so the official guide told me and three other people I could go with them. I don’t understand quite how this happened, but the private guide didn’t seem to know that there was electric lighting down there, and supplied his party with candles. Now the attraction (or not, depending on your proclivities) of this crypt, is that it creates ‘air mummies.’ The bodies that were deposited down there didn’t decompose. Of course, it was a dreadful thing to do, to take candles and drip hot wax on the mummies. I didn’t have one, so was absolved of guilt. I remember the soft fawn dust all over the place, the dust of bones and powdered dried-out flesh, the ridges on the floor which were bones, because some of the bodies had just been shunted through a chute from the street. And the bodies! There was a nobleman, in his wig, his nice shoes, his coat, knee-breeches and stockings, and his perruque peeling away from his scalp. There was a naked corpse, knees bent, and a wide hood of skin like paper inside which there was once a weight of fluid and a foetus. I suppose the baby’s skeleton was still inside there. There was a young woman in a ruffled dress and high-heeled shoes, clutching a cross. Their faces were mild, dreamy; they seemed to dream the time away, in the colourless dark, and they’d lost all colour themselves, they were dove-coloured, dim. And yet real. They had personality. They spoke.
It was the candlelight that made them so powerful, though. I went there again, with my daughter, on a subsequent trip, and it wasn’t the same by electric light.

My last route into the past is a book by a man called Louis Paulian, called La Hotte du Chiffonnier, and as far as I know, nobody has translated it. I read a couple of extracts from it in a coffee-table book about nineteenth-century Paris and managed to get hold of it through Abebooks. It’s about the informal refuse collectors – or rag-pickers – or scavengers – of that time. Paulian was an official who, like the wonderful Henry Mayhew in London, cared enough to go and find out about such people. It tells you about the mechanics of recycling a hundred-odd years ago, how the contents of the bins were separated by the chiffonniers, bones went to the glue factory or to be made into buttons, bread was either eaten by the chiffonniers themselves, or fed to animals, or, if it had lain in the gutter so long that the beasts rejected it, was roasted and sold to Quartier Latin restauranteurs as breadcrumbs for cutlets. The dust was sold in grocers’ shops as ‘chicory.’ Hairs were made into sieves through which fruit syrup was poured Rags were made into paper. There are pictures of the machines the recyclers used, and of the men and women on their rounds, with their hooks, baskets, and lamps. My husband being a specialist in waste management with a particular interest in the ‘informal sector’, I have mined the book for historical information for him, but one day I shall use it for fictional purposes.

Friday, 4 June 2010

This Is Where We Came In

My parents weren’t very good at organising their leisure time – maybe because they worked so hard at their jobs. My father worked for the YMCA – how he would have hated that song! and my mother, as well as teaching, studied first for an external BA Hons from London University, then for an MA, part-time. Amusements used to happen, when my father wasn’t away organising courses and my mother could be dragged away from her books – on a highly ad-hoc basis. Thus, if we were going to the pictures, we just went, regardless of the show time. That wouldn’t work nowadays, but in those days (late 1950s, early 1960s) you paid for entrance to the picture house and left when you’d had enough. People often arrived halfway through and then went when they’d got to the place where they came in. It made for a lot of moving about. Maybe audiences were more tolerant in those days. I have the impression that we always arrived just before the end of the picture, and then left just as things were moving to a climax.
I think that’s part of my becoming a writer, actually. It’s probably also the reason why, to the anguish of many (I can’t quite understand why, it doesn’t hurt THEM), I often look at the end of books and then read on happily. It’s interesting to see how they get there.
I did mind leaving before the end of the picture, though. I don’t think my brother did, or my parents, but none of them were inveterate re-readers as I was (and still am). I always wanted to see how the ending, that had seemed so mysterious when we first came in, linked to what I was watching. Anyway, I didn’t have a chance. I was the youngest. I went, reluctantly, trailing after them.
The cinema was always fuzzy with cigarettes in those days, it was a miracle you could see the screen and I remember the curls of smoke rising up in front of the film. There was an advertisement where someone called ‘Aurora!’ I seem to remember a cartoon child with plaits. ‘Aurora!’ the voice called again, coyly. ‘Kia-Ora, Aurora!’ And the Grecian columns announcing the Pearl and Dean adverts, an exciting gateway to a boring sequence of stuff, apart from the intriguing Kia-Ora one, because who was Aurora? Where did she come from? And why did perfectly ordinary orange squash thrill her so much?
There was always a B-Movie. Sometimes these were terrible, but they were often interesting, experimental things, films my parents would probably never have brought me to see if they’d been shown on their own, and they too helped form me as a writer, though I can't remember the names of any of them. I remember seeing endless Disney films; ‘Snow White,’ I remember, but also a lot featuring animals and kids, starring Bobby Driscoll? Would that be right? And Hayley Mills, of course, as Pollyanna or the twins in ‘The Parent Trap’ – though when I read ‘Lottie and Lisa’ I thought that was much better than the movie. I was fascinated, though, by how one girl could be made into two on the screen. And I saw ‘Ben Hur,’ when I was older, ‘The Fall of the Roman Empire’ with Peter Ustinov, fat, wobbly, and decadent; ‘Spartacus’ ‘We’ll free every slave in Italy.’ I saw Peter Sellars in various comedies – he was great, but somehow upsetting, probably because I wasn’t old enough to appreciate the black humour.
My father took me to Westerns with James Stewart, who he adored, even ‘Destry Rides Again,’ though my mother didn’t approve of Marlene Dietrich. By contrast, she adored Greta Garbo, but I had to wait for the Nottingham University Film Club, after we moved, to see her in ‘Queen Christina.’ The cinemas in Kendal, where we lived when I was youngest, were ‘The Palladium’ and ‘The Roxy.’ My parents thought the Roxy was common, though looking at the films they showed there, in old issues of the Westmoreland Gazette, I can’t imagine why. Maybe it was something to do with the décor.
There was something about those cinemas, with their plush seats and the back row for the snoggers, that the modern multiplexes don’t have, though I’d hate the smoke nowadays. Maybe it’s just because I was a kid then. I don’t like that ubiquitous smell of pop-corn. But I still do love going to the movies. I went to see 'The Picture of Dorian Gray, recently, at the BfI. It was great. And seeing a film often moves me on with my writing, opens doors in my mind. Is it the music? I don’t know. Anyway, films are marvellous.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Recent Reading, by Leslie Wilson

I’m absolutely and totally engaged in my novel at the present, and when I’m writing, it feels as if I was listening to something and then taking it down. Oddly, this is much more tiring than more consciously ‘inventing’ stuff. However, I am not going to use this blog to describe the noble exaltations of ‘the creative process’ – a process often interrupted by bouts of weeding, watering, sowing seeds – it being the time of year when the garden needs constant attention if we are to have vegetables and flowers this summer, autumn, over the winter (the veg) and into next year. (It’s work that complements the writing, though.) Otherwise I walk my dog and look after my grandson at intervals. And I read.

When I’m as absorbed as this in writing, I read things which are totally undemanding, and at present I’m gobbling up some Scarlet Pimpernel novels which I picked up for a squid each in a fascinating little antique shop in Minchinhampton. I absolutely adored the Scarlet Pimpernel when I was a teenager, and though I am noticing how clumsily they’re written – and researched, my dear!! The fashions are wrong, and she talks about Sir Percy driving ‘a coach’. Georgette Heyer, who succeeded Baroness Orczy as a fave read in my teens, would always have specified whether it was a curricle, a landaulette, a berlin, a phaeton, etc.

But Baroness O tells a cracking good tale, and though Sir P is engaged on rescuing aristos, she does also show some sympathy for the aims of the revolution, embodied in many of her romantic heroes, and also some compassion for the misery of the people whose suffering was its cause. The world she describes, though comically encumbered with yokels and jocund hosts or caitiffs, is vivid and exciting, and in the one I’m just finishing Sir Percy Leads the Band, there are some wonderful, surreal scenes featuring a wonderfully grotesque band of musicians – led, of course, by Sir P in disguise – which pleased me on the aesthetic level, too.

When I was a teenager, there wasn’t the same range of novels for my age-group that there is now, when wonderful writers are giving their best, managing to write novels – or are they novellas? that entrance kids and discriminating adults alike. I wish there had been. I’ve just read two such that really excited me. They are fantastic, thought-provoking, and wonderfully-written. One is Celia Rees’s THE FOOL’S GIRL, and the other is Anna Perera’s GUANTANAMO BOY. My teenage self would have loved them too.

The Fool’s Girl is the story of Violetta, a girl from Illyria. Yes, the place where Twelfth Night happens - and Violetta is the daughter of Viola and Count Orsino. Happy Endings are only endings if we allow them to be, in real life the world goes on, and the endings of plays and novels are often unpicked and the threads spun further by writers. This doesn’t always succeed, but Celia Rees has triumphed here. I love her work, and this, I think, is her best yet. She has made the novel out of the darkness that lies at the heart of Twelfth Night – the Malvolio plot. Furious at his humiliation, Malvolio goes on to become an implacable enemy of Illyria. Meanwhile life itself eats away at the happiness of the two couples. Orsino and Viola, Olivia and Sebastian drift apart from each other; Viola and Olivia are destroyed. But their children, a boy and a girl, grow up, loving each other, while their respective fathers become enemies. Malvolio, in the background, plots and brings destruction on them all.

The novel starts in Illyria, with unforgettable, implacably-described scenes of the city’s sacking at the hands of Venetians and pirates. Mercifully, Rees soon whisks us away from them to the place where the novel ends – in Shakespeare’s London, where Violetta has come, with the fool, Feste, to look for a thing of great value that Malvolio has stolen. With impeccable skill, Rees weaves the developing disasters of the past with the tensions and excitements of the present, and brings the story to a gripping, magical climax.

Shakespeare is part of the story – a Shakespeare, who, (as in Shakespeare in Love) has yet to write Twelfth Night, though the story is already around. People in London have heard of it, and as a result they doubt Viola’s story when she tells it. That doesn’t matter. Stories get around; they interact with life. Sometimes it seems as if the whole thing is taking place inside the spherical theatre of Will Shakespeare’s brain. Puck is here, and Oberon and Titania, though they are human beings as well. All this could so easily grate, it might be knowing and laboured. But Rees’s touch is sure and unfailingly skilful, a storyteller one can trust. I was so sad when it was over and I had to leave her world behind, a world painted in clear, jewelled colours like a medieval painting. I shall go back there, though. Again and again.

Guantanamo Boy is about a world none of us really want to visit. It tells how an ordinary British Muslim lad, whose parents come from Pakistan, draws the attention of the ‘security’ services and is branded a terrorist. He’s abducted on a family trip to Karachi and taken to prison, where a confession is tortured out of him. He ends up in Guantanamo Bay.

Anna Perera doesn’t take us straight into the horror; that would be intolerable. She starts with Khalid in Rochdale; with his family, with his schoolmates, loving a girl, laughing, fooling, dreaming, getting annoyed with his father and his sisters. But he’s playing a computer game online with his cousin from Lahore, it’s about destroying cities. He keeps on playing it when he gets to Karachi, where his father disappears. His mother asks him to go out and look for Dad. On the way he’s obstructed by a demonstration. He decides the best thing to do is to join in. He cheers and shouts, punching the air. For him, it’s all a game, however anxious he is about his father. He’s a lad, that’s what lads do. But the reader, knowing what’s to come, is thinking: Oh, no, don’t do that, you fool! And then disaster happens.

Anna Perera’s great achievement is to keep anyone reading – it took me a long time to decide to pick it up, because I wasn’t sure I wanted to immerse myself in such awfulness. This may sound a cheek from me, considering the kind of harrowing things I write about. In fact, my respect for Perera was increased by that: I found it hideous to write about my teenage heroine in a Nazi prison, being subject to what is called Cruel Inhuman and Degrading Treatment (torture lite, they merrily call it, ie it leaves no visible marks). And that was only four chapters. To take on a story like this demands a lot from a writer. To make it bearable for one’s readers is an enormous challenge.

This story is not a monotone chronicle of horror, instead it’s an absorbing, though devastating account of something we should all know more about, because these things are real; they are being done in the name of our security, and they should be stopped. Kids as young as eleven have been imprisoned as part of the War on Terror. Not just in Guantanamo, but in many of the countries we outsource torture to. And even in the UK, there are prisoners who have been held for years, not knowing what they’re charged with because we know, don’t we? that we can trust the people who reckon they’re guilty anyway. And isn’t our safety worth it? But you can get someone to say anything under torture, as Khalid’s story shows, you can ask them for names and they’ll come up with anyone they can think of, just to get it to stop.

It’s also the story of how someone can survive it, though scarred and battered. That bit is handled with enormous skill. It could sound moralising and heavy. It doesn’t here. Though of course one thinks: yes, but Khalid could have become radicalised, have become a real terrorist. And again, one can see how easily that can happen.

Read both these books, if you haven’t already. They’re well worth it.

Friday, 2 April 2010

I am a writer in my dreams.

I dreamed last night that I was accompanying a woman around, who needed my help, who was, indeed, in the grip of a severe emotional crisis. This wasn’t surprising, since she was composed of slices of chicken breast that needed to be reassembled. I spent a little time pondering this after I woke up, but it didn’t solve any of my current plot problems.

You might well say that it wouldn’t, but it’s odd how often solutions do come out of dreams. In many cases (like the chicken-slice woman) I’d find the solution by reflecting on the symbolism. In her case it could signify some sense of inner fragmentation, perhaps, but this doesn’t ring any bells with me. Leave her aside, however, and I can often jump from a dream about a tidal wave full of horrible fish to realising that my character’s repressed feelings about something or other must now leap out and grab her (or him) round the throat. Sometimes there’s no apparent connection at all, but thinking about the dream gives my imagination a nudge nonetheless, the dream has geared me up, maybe?

On at least one occasion, a major plot component was given me by a dream. This was years ago, when I was working on a novel for adults The Mountain of Immoderate Desires, and I took a nap in the afternoon because I wasn’t feeling very well. I woke up with a start, with my heart thumping, and a sense of terror, while a voice spoke to me: ‘You have come a long way to end outside a Chinese city wall.’ When I’d recovered from my fright, I thought: That’s it, Lily, the character in my novel has been abandoned outside the walls of a Chinese city, and she almost dies there. Of course I wasn’t taking exact dictation from the dream, but it was pretty apposite, and I was very pleased with the nudge from my subconscious.

I have other, less helpful dreams, in which I am writing a novel which, I know, is the same as one already written, and have this moment of horror when it gets through to me. Or else I’m just writing a different novel from the one I’m actually working on, and I know it’s rubbish. Then there are the strange published novels that pop up in my dreams, books I’ve written that I don’t recognise – and usually they’re not up to much, either. I have no hesitation in ascribing these dreams to the insecurity of the writer’s life, and I wonder if other writers have them?

Some dreams come, recognisably, out of a particular writer’s plot-bag. I dreamed the night before last that I was Death’s granddaughter (though not at all like Miss Susan) and subsequent to the End of the World – which was, however, only temporary, for reasons perhaps known to Terry Pratchett – I had to tidy up all the mess people had left behind them. I remember making beds – literally, I had to staple ticking onto divan covers and assemble mattresses (such is the quaint verbal literalness of the dreamer’s mind) clearing up kitchens, weeding gardens – for as long as the world stayed ended, the beds stayed tidy – and then the Last Trumpeter appeared again and played, presumably, the Reveille. And everyone got up and the world un-ended. The interesting thing about this dream was its close attention to plot and thematic consistency, whereas most dreams jump from one plot to another like a grasshopper making its way across the field. I also woke at the trumpet, and heard my alarm going off.

And not so long ago, I dreamed I was watching the hobbits arrive at the Bridge in Rivendell. They came there, not on ponies, but in an old VW dormobile, the kind that was painted all over with flowers and CND symbols. They had to leave it in the car park (National Trust, of course) and run up the marked trail to the river, and when the Black Riders arrived in pursuit they came in a stretch limo and got out, all dressed in dark suits and dark glasses like Mafiosi. This surely indicates a distinct cultural connection between The Lord of the Rings and The Godfather.

Quite a while ago, there was a quote on an ABBA blog from a writer who said that one is only a writer while sitting at one’s desk and actually doing the job. But I am a writer at loads of other times as well, including, as I’ve said above, in my dreams.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

If you want children to read, buy Fairtrade!! By Leslie Wilson

This is World Book Day, but it’s also still Fairtrade Fortnight, and books and Fairtrade go together – not because authors are underpaid, though most of us are – but because there are thousands of kids in the world who never get a chance to learn. This is sometimes because they are girls, but mostly because they’re poor, and the children work and help keep the family going. I wrote in an earlier blog about the wonderful work that’s being done in Cairo, educating the children of the waste recyclers. But every time you buy a Fairtrade product, you're not only giving producers a fair price for their product, but also subscribing to a raft of benefits for the community.

Part of the price of Fairtrade goods is what's called the Fairtrade premium, and the producers choose what they will spend this on – examples are farm inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides, but also, importantly, medical expenses and school fees. To give one example, the Kavokiva cooperative in southeastern Côte d’Ivoire, which produces cocoa beans. In this region, the illiteracy rate among agricultural communities is as high as 95%. Many schools are badly equipped and too far away for children to attend every day. Kavokiva was Fairtrade certified for cocoa in 2004. Although the global recession has hindered sales, the Fairtrade premium has helped the cooperative to build schools in some villages where the government school was too far away. It has helped furnish classrooms and blackboards, and other supplies. It also distributes scholarships to that the members’ children can pay school fees.

Clearly, one still has to scout around to find Fairtrade products in many areas – though the Waitrose coffee and tea shelves are a joy to behold – but things are looking up. You can buy Fairtrade avocados, fruit, chocolate, coffee, tea, honey, nuts, apricots, beauty products and goods made from Fairtrade cotton, to name but a few. Tate and Lyle, Cadburys, and Kit-Kats are some mainstream companies who have recently made Fairtrade commitments. I bought several T-shirts made with Fairtrade cotton from Marks and Spencers last year. I plan to email people like Marks and Sparks and say you’d like to be able to get more Fairtrade products even than they sell at the moment. I also mean to write to other chocolate producers and egg them on to go Fairtrade – but the Co-op does a nice chocolate bar, and Traidcraft Swiss chocolate is brill! Green and Blacks’s Maya Gold chocolate is Fairtrade, of course.

On the topic of books, I’m shamelessly using the column to make a plug for another charity, which is Bookaid International. They make books available to kids in Sub-Saharan Africa, Palestine and Sri Lanka. You can find out more on their site, url below. In Kenya, they help provide a camel mobile library service!! This is an idea that appeals to me greatly.

For as long as I can remember, books have lit up my life, but I had the benefits of being brought up in a highly literate family, having a good, state-funded education, and having, from the time I was very small, access to free libraries. I know many of you will have had similar advantages. But the relative wealth and privilege of our own country – the recession notwithstanding – has too often been bought at the expense of other people in poorer countries. The Fairtrade Foundation - and Bookaid - are working to change all that.

Look for the Fairtrade marque on Fairtrade products - I meant to put it in here, but couldn't manage the technicalities of downloading it! I'm sorry, daffy authors... But you can see it on the products I've mentioned above, or at their website.

I've found out one can help fund Bookaid (and other charities) by shopping at a range of online retailers, Amazon, Tesco, Asda, Next, M and S, John Lewis, Ebay, Comet – and more – via a site called The Giving Machine. There’s also a thing called the Reverse Book Club. For three pounds a month you can buy 36 books every year for people who need them.,

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Two novels about violence: Leslie Wilson

I have recently read two excellent books for teenagers; one of them is just out, the other has been out for some time, but the subject matter of the two seems to go together, both dealing with issues around boys and violence, both exciting novels, but also sensitive and perceptive, and managing never to moralise.

The first is Gillian Philip’s Crossing the Line, which was published last year – and she has blogged here about writing it. It deals with the aftermath of a stabbing: Aidan Mahon was stabbed while trying to protect his girlfriend Allie from a school bully. The bully just happens to have once been in a school gang with the narrator, Nick Geddes, who is Allie’s elder brother. Nick, cut loose from the gang, is now isolated at school, traumatised by the murder, and bewildered about life. He’s also drop-dead gorgeous, Philip leaves us in no doubt about that, and so is his sister. So is the girl he loves, Orla – who is the murdered Aidan’s sister.

Nick’s other problems include his beloved grandmother, who’s now suffering from Alzheimers, his ineffectual ageing-hippy father, who drinks, and his mother, who has a rather vapid and highly embarrassing New-Age spirituality slot on the local radio. The novel weaves past and present together with superb aplomb; it really kept me turning the pages, completely gripped, and also amused, because Nick has a sense of humour, however bad things are.

Inside, by Julia Jarman, is the story of Lee who is ‘inside for a crime he has committed. He’s mugged an old lady and put her in hospital. Now, angry, resentful, and scared, he’s sent to Parkhall Young Offenders Institution. He’s at a tipping point in his life: ‘You can turn yourself round in here, Lee, if you stick to the rules,’ the nurse tells him. Only Parkhall is full of young criminals who are determined what will happen to Lee is further training in crime and gang culture

When I was young and a student, I did voluntary work with adolescent offenders, and they were just like the characters in this novel. I remember looking at them and seeing grown lads with the minds and emotional maturity of toddlers. They’re lads who’ve never had a chance, actually; I remember the principal of Newton Aycliffe Approved School saying to us: ‘If you think where these lads are coming from, you’re surprised they’ve done as well as they have.’ This is certainly true of Lee; Jarman gradually, subtly, builds up the picture of his background on a sink estate with a mother who isn’t able to cope with her money, with her life, with parenthood. We may not have street children in our society, but there are too many who are literally cast away, from the moment they’re born, deprived of the loving hard work and care it takes to properly bring up a child.

All the same, Lee is frightening. He’s beaten his own mother up, a crime even the other young offenders despise – and his cell-mate, the horrible Sharpey, knows about this and uses the knowledge to control him. All through the book, you’re trembling for him, knowing that his future hangs in the balance – will he be able to turn himself round, or will he slither downwards?

The novel’s told in Lee’s own voice, and Jarman has rendered it brilliantly, a mixture of brutality and vulnerability. It is, in many ways, the voice of a child. But a child who’s effectively on his own, who has to make major choices with the odds stacked against him.

A novel for teens has to have the teenager solving their own problems – that’s what it’s about. The teen novel is always, in my view, the classic Bildungsroman. But there are adults in both these books who help; the teacher McCluskey in Crossing the Line, and in Inside, the prison officer McGiven (what is it with Scots?) who’s able to be tough and caring at the same time. And the youth worker, who reported Lee to the police, but who is himself an ex-offender and who reaches out to Lee. These are bits of good fortune that I’m sadly aware aren’t available for many kids. God help them.