As Finals approached, this time 22 years ago, I was worried that I’d wake up in the night before an exam and not be able to sleep, so I bought Victoria Wood’s AS SEEN ON TV on cassette tape: I’d watched her whenever she was on the telly, and knew that if I couldn’t sleep, at least I’d laugh, so I’d be exhausted but relaxed. Victoria Wood saw me safely through Finals, and, when it was all over, I bought more tapes in celebration, and listened on through my twenties till they warped and no amount of careful pencil-twiddling could make them play.
When we were newly married – C miserable and avoiding his PhD, me temping for a bullying accountant and too self-critical to get anything written – we’d start the week with a food budget of seven quid – mainly lentils, with apples for a treat – but by Friday, we’d say ‘sod it’ and write a cheque for a take-away, praying that it wouldn’t bounce. We were playing at being poor, of course, because we had seven kinds of safety net strung out below us, but still, it was recklessly, giddily indulgent when we blew £50 – a wedding gift – on a pair of tickets to see Victoria Wood live at Oxford New Theatre that summer, 1996. I laughed until I thought I’d never catch my breath again, and that night was worth all the subsequent eight-mile, round-trip walks to work when I didn’t have the money for the bus.
We read our copy of Chunky till the spine split, and cried every time at that moment in Frank’s café where Pat stays his hand: ‘Our Margaret doesn’t like peas’. Tapes of Dinnerladies got us through the years when the kids worked the night shift in tight relays (one dropping off, the other waking).
Our marriage has changed shape and now we’re mates and parents and not a couple any more, but as for so many of us, Victoria Wood’s work is woven into our shared lives and still, more than anyone, makes us laugh and cry together. Thank you, Victoria, for the deranged Sacherelle saleswoman, for Mrs Overall, for Kitty. Thank you for disarming us with Kimberley, then breaking us open with Chrissie the channel swimmer who’s never seen again; for Margaret Mottershead, Motorway Waitress, lost in the Granada canteen. Till now, I’ve never cried about the death of someone I didn’t know. But I think we all had you pegged as our mate; a mate who made it safe to feel very sad and very happy and not worried about being wakeful in the dark. We are, and always will be, so very, very grateful.
I’ve learned that when Jonathan Davidson (Writing West Midlands, Birmingham Literary Festival) asks you to do something, it’s best to say yes quickly and not think too much about it, because it’s probably (a) something you haven’t done before and (b) terrifying.
I know nothing about contemporary dance, but, because I said yes, I was on the stage of the Patrick Centre at the Birmingham Hippodrome talking about Murakami’s Norwegian Wood with the dancers and choreographer of ‘There we have been’ and ‘Without Stars’.
Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood is a novel about love and loss and death-in-life; it’s also about the limits of storytelling. At the outset, Toru, on an aeroplane, hears his dead girlfriend Naoko’s favourite song, and is flung up against a memory that doesn’t hurt, but ‘delivers a kick to some part of [his] mind’. He explains why he’s writing about the events of nineteen years ago – ‘I have to write things down to feel I fully comprehend them’ – and invites us to a place that in other circumstances might feel fairy-tale: the meadow, the field well, the ‘three wishes’.
No sooner than we’ve got used to ‘the frightful silence of a pine forest’, we’re evicted, and thrust into a land where the maps lie, where words don’t work and where stories and their tellers aren’t to be trusted. Toru and Naoko are brought together after the death of his Kizuki – his best friend; her boyfriend – and Toru describes a life in which stories can’t make sense of the world: the twice-bereaved and broken Naoko has a ‘word-searching sickness’ and can ‘never say what I want to say’; the warm, exuberant Midori lives above the wrong kind of bookshop, where you can buy women’s glossies and How-tos, but “No War and Peace… No Catcher in the Rye”, and she tells Toru that her father’s “in Uruguay”, rather than dying of a brain tumour in the local hospital; Toru goes on ‘supplying everyone with new stories’ about the knickers of the girl he hasn’t slept with, and cruel, humiliating lies about his room mate; a manipulative mythomaniac frames (the albeit complicit) Reiko. They’re all, in their own wounded, heavily defended ways, telling tales to keep the truth at bay, and trying to bring shape to chaos.
Behind all the static buzz of untruths, there’s one story that remains untold and untellable: the story that explains why Kizuki, Toru’s best friend and Naoko’s boyfriend, killed himself. It’s not solely the lack of Kizuki, but perhaps the lack of any explanation, any narrative, that creates the ‘vague knot of air’ inside Toru; for him, for Naoko, this lack is the hole in the centre of the wheel: “in the midst of life, everything revolved around death.”
I wasn’t sure how a story about stories would translate into dance. I wasn’t even sure how to watch: I know nothing about dance and I was worried that I wouldn’t know how to ‘read’ it. How would I know what was happening? (It’s telling that I can only talk about this in terms of reading story). But if there is a point to Toru’s narrative, it’s this: when we try to ‘make sense’, to forcibly shape a story, we end up locked in ‘the dead centre of this place that was no place’.
In ‘There we have been’ and ‘Without Stars’, James Cousins and his company haven’t tried to sketch out Murakami’s novel on the stage; they’ve distilled the relationships, exploring texture and dynamic rather than narrative arc; Naoko and Toru glance off each others’ bodies, with only the briefest of touches that can seem at times more like collision than embrace. (This brought to mind the pool game Toru and Kizuki play only hours before Kizuki kills himself). There is a brittleness and shared emptiness that defines how Toru and Naoko are with each other; fearful, tentative, compulsive, as if the terrifyingly unseen field well is between them, ‘deep beyond measuring, and crammed full of darkness, as if all the world’s darknesses had been boiled down to their ultimate density.’
Toru and Midori (male, here) have an altogether more robust, warm and substantial dynamic; their relationship is joyful and organic and fully embodied. But Toru is pulled away from Midori and back towards Naoko, and Naoko is pulled away from Toru, towards the shadow and the memory of Kizuki, and the dance ricochets between these triangles. (In life, Toru says, ‘we were like a talk-show, with me the guest, Kizuki the talented host and Naoko his assistant. He was good at occupying that central position.’) Even though her lover is no more, Naoko is pulled towards Kizuki (and, therefore, death): she leans towards him with a supple strength that we never see in her interactions with the living, and despite Toru’s frantic attempts to claw her back, we never see Naoko stronger and more alive than when she has chosen to die. In her astonishing duet, when her feet don’t touch the ground for the full seventeen minutes, we’re never quite sure whether she’s dancing with Kizuki or Toru. It doesn’t matter: in both her relationship with the living Toru and with the dead Kizuki, Naoko is ungrounded and never really in her body, suspended between heaven and earth, between death and life, as if this is takes place in the ‘knot of air’, in her final breath, her last moments of consciousness. But she is held, and there is, for Naoko, peace.
When a Tory ‘friend’ posted on Facebook about her relief at the General Election result on Friday, I wanted to grab her by the hair and pull her through a Ghost-of-Christmas-Present ride through the city and watch her eyes widen in horror at what she’d done. The trouble is – aside from the violence behind the impulse – if you force someone’s eyes open, they’ll shut tighter than ever when you let go.
Cameron, Gove and friends don’t understand difference. They have a deficit of public kindness. They have no imagination. If they did, they couldn’t legislate the way they do. They can’t read across ideas and situations. If they could, the hideous inflexibility of Benefit Sanctions would be mirrored in a blanket criminalisation of high-end tax avoiders. (Maybe they don’t read. A local teacher told me on Friday that ‘Hard Times’ feels like contemporary comment).
This is what I mean by ‘no imagination’: they grab the unconfident, depressed or barely functioning person who missed his appointment at the Job Centre and shake the last pound coin from his pocket, shouting, “Be better! Be different! Be born in a different family! Don’t be abused! Have more opportunities! Have money! Be cleverer!” Ultimately, they’re shouting, “Be more like me!”, which is precisely what I wanted to shout at the Tory voter. Which makes me like this government. Which is eye-opening.
I want to resist, to be part of a ground-up, lasting change that spreads from person to person. Marching and spray-painting aren’t my thing, but between us, we have a big, juicy surplus of imagination and expertise. Grass-roots campaigners, anti-poverty lobbyists, writers, counsellors, trainers, expert listeners, makers and thinkers and doers…
How might we learn from each other? What beautifully subversive, unrelentingly compassionate action can we take?
Ultimately, the Tory voter is just as much a victim of this regime that prizes individual net worth above the intrinsic value of any human life.
So how do we engage kindly and imaginatively with the comfortably-off true-blue voter, and not in the manner of the evangelist or the Victorian White Man going into the “Dark” Continent?
I have some ideas. I bet you do, too. Imagination never felt so subversive.
The first thing you need to write a novel is… Time.
The second thing you need to write a novel is… More Time.
And the third thing you need to write a novel is… Even More Time.
This perhaps seems a bit obvious. But let me explain.
Time, More Time and Even More Time are all necessary.
I’ve divided Time up into three because you need Time for different things.
The first lot of Time is, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, Time to write. Time to sit at the desk with words coming out of you.
The second lot of time, More Time, is… Time not to write. Time to do stuff which doesn’t seem to be writing but which, in the end, turns out to have been writing all along. To the uninitiated, this may appear to be window shopping or people-watching, taking a nice long…
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My son recently received his first chain letter. It came by text, lurid with cartoonishly graphic horror tropes and promising painful death to loved ones if he didn’t forward the message to seven friends within the hour. He was shaken, and it was only when I told him about the chains I’ve broken – with no ill-effects – that he calmed down and deleted the message, fidgeting until the hour was up. What I didn’t tell him was that I didn’t forward my first chain letter, not because I was a fearless sceptic, but because, even aged 10, I was an accomplished procrastinator. I just never got round to writing it out. At thirty, I broke the send-a-friend-some-fancy-new-knickers chain. (I got as far as buying pants but kept them for myself). At forty, I threw away a Herman friendship cake mix after leaving it to grow spores on the worktop for a good month. I am not good with chains, even the benevolent ones.
So I was a bit nervous when super-writer William Gallagher, king of productivity, asked me to take part in the Blogging Tour. (His stop on the Blogging Tour is here). Writers, signposting other writers? Writers, answering four not-so-simple questions about their work? These are Good Things. There is no grisly caveat attached to the original Blogging Tour request – ‘forward this in seven days or a mid-list writer will get dropped by their publisher’ – but this is still a chain I don’t want to break.
1) What am I working on?.
I’m working on a novel that’s evolved from my first book, Ruby’s Spoon. While the first book is set in and around a landlocked Black Country town, the next (working title, The Silver House) is set in an abandoned house on the coast of North Devon and involves wolves, post-partum delusions and garden restoration.
For a further novel, I’m reading about anchorholds and medieval spirituality, prisons, rogue convents, cell biology and the psychology of architecture. I have an idea of the shape that novel might take, but I’m holding it lightly and won’t start writing it till The Silver House is finished.
2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I’m not the best judge of this and I’m not even sure what ‘genre’ it fits into. My writing has been called ‘by turns modern and folkloric’, but broadly, it’s long-form prose fiction with a poetic bent. I love Thomas Teal’s translations of Tove Jansson’s prose and sometimes I wish my writing were similarly translucent. To read The Summer Book is to be immersed in cold Finnish waters and feel moss and stone under your toes. George Orwell said, ‘Good prose should be transparent, like a window pane’, but while I think he would have approved of Jansson, there’s plenty of good writing that isn’t transparent, writing that makes you aware of the texture of the language as you read. I suspect my writing is more woven cloth than glass.
3) Why do I write what I do?
I write what interests me. I’m always quoting R. D. Laing at my students: ‘We can see other people’s behaviour, but not their experience’. I like to engage with unattractive characters who behave badly and find out what made them the way they are. I’m interested in the rhythm of words on the page, and I’m interested in the collision of the mundane and the magical. I’m interested in how place can shape and mirror experience. I love a mystery, and the unresolvable stuff that’s left after the denouement. Sometimes I think I should challenge myself to write in a contemporary setting with no suggestion of magic, but writing like that doesn’t comes naturally to me at all.
4) How does my writing process work?
It’s really hard to articulate how my process works because it’s always changing. I don’t have a formula: it’s a combination of organic growth and structured development. There is no right way to write a novel and I’m very suspicious when writers are doctrinaire and insist that you should approach writing in a certain way. That said, I know what doesn’t work for me. I don’t plan a story before I begin: I uncover the story by writing. I usually start with a particular image or cluster of images: Ruby’s Spoon began with a little girl jumping up and down in a fish and chip shop, and a woman sorting buttons in a saucer. The Silver House started with an image of a pair of shoes outside a locked bedroom.
With The Silver House, I got to know the characters through freewriting and found out what their stories were. When I knew which story I wanted to tell, I decided whose point of view the reader would have access to, how much the narrator would know, and, in broad strokes, how I would structure the plot.
In the later drafts of Ruby’s Spoon, I started each scene with a checklist that I may have nicked from Philip Pullman, and I’ll probably use the same checklist with the current novel. The checklist: what’s just happened? What time of day is it? Who’s here? Where’s the light coming from? What has to happen by the end of this scene? I found this discipline very useful and it gave momentum to the writing, but I didn’t think more than a scene or two ahead. I still don’t know exactly what’s going to happen or how the action will unfold. On the best days, the writing takes on a life of its own, and it’s my job to get the words down, not to force them in a direction they don’t want to take.
For the next stop on the blogging tour, jump over to Kit de Waal‘s blog. Kit worked in criminal and family law for fifteen years and now writes flash fiction, short stories and longer form prose. She is published in various anthologies (Fish Prize 2011 & 2012; ‘The Sea in Birmingham’ 2013; ‘Final Chapters’ 2014’) and works as an editor of non-fiction. She came second in the Costa Short Story Prize 2014 with ‘The Old Man & The Suit’. She is currently working on a novel ‘The Scarlet Emperor’.
Last week the Writers’ Reading Group at mac asked me to come and talk about my writing and to set them a task inspired by my novel, RUBY’S SPOON. I love the collision of the mundane and the magical, so this is the exercise I set. The results were disturbing, arresting and compelling. Have a go.
You walk away because you think the story’s dead – there’s nothing growing here. Your writer-garden used to be abundant. Things grew. It was fertile and people liked to walk about in it, but now your writer-garden is bare branches, frozen earth and you can’t even hack the spade tip into it. You walk away. You write other things and read about psychology of place, watch ‘Man on Wire’ or listen back-to-back to every crime drama on Radio 4 Extra. You fold up pants and hunt odd socks and even scrub the grouting. And then your friend says, ‘Try this: give it up. Walk away. You don’t have to write this any more,’ and you go back to the writer-garden and lock the tools up in the shed, but before you go, you stand and look about because, after all, you have invested hours, months, years in this writer-garden and what is there to show for it?
And then you notice figures moving slowly. They stop at the far side of the lawn, their coats unbuttoned and their faces open to the sun. They don’t fall to their knees and plead with you, but they are dignified and stand there, close enough for you to see their faces: Isa, Tomas, Gatty, Edi, Flo. Edi says that they have things they want to say if I will listen and they walk off into the garden, through the door cut in yew tree hedge and then they walk in all directions – Edi to the seat curved round the oak tree, Tomas towards the cliffs. Gatty and Flo run off to the veg patch and Isa kneels down in the herb garden, and you don’t know who to follow first but as you walk you find that green shoots have broken earth that metal couldn’t and the story has been growing when you weren’t looking, despite – perhaps because of – your neglect.
I love it when a story keeps on growing.