The Gate of Angels

Over the course of my book club attending life, two things have been rare occurrences.  One, a consensus between all members on their like (or dislike, in this case) of a book. And second, that opinion being completely at odds with the vast majority, if Goodreads reviews are anything to go by.  Oh, and by virtue of being a Booker Prize nominee.

Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Gate of Angels managed to tick both of these boxes. I didn’t know anything of the author before reading other than she became a published author late (in her earlier 60s I believe). So I came to the novel with no pre-existing prejudices. I struggled to get into it, struggled in the middle, struggled with the metaphor of the ghost story that abruptly takes place towards the end, and struggled with the ending itself. That in itself is unusual for me, in that I tend to take some enjoyment out of everything I read, but I finished the book mentally frazzled and more than a little puzzled.

Maybe just me, I thought, but everyone at Germany Book Club had similar feelings. Most had trouble with the university section that bookends the novel, which is essentially a dry satire on the puffed up ridiculousness of the physics department at a Cambridge house, but also trying to make serious points on the limits of science in human experience, all through the eyes of student Fred Fairly. Or so I’ve heard. This was our main problem – that the themes of the novel are so buried in context and under layers that it’s difficult to extract them and easy to lose interest. I have no problem with having to do a little work to get to the jist, but this felt much like needle in a haystack territory.

The story of Daisy Saunders was better, and a nice contrast to the pompousness of the university. She works as a London nurse struggling to make her way in the world and undertaking long shifts of hard graft to do so. Here the theme was more explicit and better explored, showing Daisy’s progression in a profession hitherto exclusive to men. Indeed, most of Daisy’s experiences with men could be described as seedy, not flat-out misogyny but with disdain and never as an equal.  Also her efforts to be seen as a free individual at a time when women mostly fulfilled dutiful housewife roles rang true.

The aforementioned ghost story was nothing more than an oddity for us, no-one could really work out its purpose.  Perhaps a foreshadowing of Fred and Daisy’s relationship after the cycling accident that throws them together? Who knows, but the supernatural element just felt out of place.

Fitzgerald called the ending the happiest she ever wrote, which struck us as odd as I think most found it ambiguous. It’s a play on the title of the novel, as Daisy helps a man who has collapsed on college grounds and then leaves through the gate, only to run into Fred. The end.  I think it’s deliberately left up in the air so we can ponder if a man of facts and science and a ministering ‘Angel’, to use the title, can ever be together. Again, I don’t mind having to make up my own mind, but this deliberate obliqueness became frustrating for me, and I think for all of us.

Goodreads will tell you a different story though, so maybe we are just all philistines who need to read more books!

Bereft

Finishing the first draft of a novel is not necessarily the moment of joy you might expect it to be.  On the occasions it has happened to me, I’ve mostly just felt exhausted. Emotional, certainly (especially if the ending turned out contrary to expectation) but in need of a good rest.  And knowing that there is still an awful lot of work ahead to wrestle the manuscript into something presentable.

But once the final draft is done, the whole range of emotions come out.  I edited the last pages of Gaslight in the early evening yesterday, re-read the concluding sentence, saved the document and shut down the laptop.  And that’s it.  Three and a half years of work finally completed. I think back to the man that I was when I started in late 2016, how unhappy and unsure he was, and how I thought a nice little novella was on the cards. And if I knew what was going to happen, whether I would have had the mental strength to carry on.  I think sometimes it’s better not to know, otherwise the challenge can seem so daunting. Head down, concentrate on only the next step, that was how I tackled it, as the novel took on a life of its own.

The books origins, the struggles to write the words, the dark places the characters trod, once the final draft is done all those become part of its legend.  Now I’ve decided its over, and the manuscript is ready to be read, it’s no longer mine.  It’s out in the world and I no longer have any control over what happens.  It could be despised.  Loved.  Controversial. People could be outraged by it.  But my job is done. The characters can disappear into the sunset and carry on their lives, and I can remain grateful for seeing part of their world for the months they carried me with them.

That kind of sums up the overwhelming feeling I have once a novel is completed.  I just feel bereft. A sense of loss. Knowing that for all the heartache it took, we went on a journey together for a long time, had a relationship even, and when it all comes to an end, and you know you will never see or hear from them again, yeah, it’s sad.  I often wonder if authors with extensive back catalogues think about characters from old novels going back 40 or 50 years.  I’d like to think that they do.  That the awe and the thrill stays with you for the rest of your life, along with the privilege and just being grateful for the opportunity.

So, Gaslight is over, in a creative sense at least. What I do with it now is a watch this space. I think I’m going to try as hard as I can to get it published. So for now, I’m going to refrain from leaving a copy in the bibliography.  Just until I’ve given it a go.  The odds are stacked against me, particularly the length of the novel, which will put a lot off.  But in the end I’m proud of this one, and whilst my relationship with the characters is done, hopefully in the future it will just be beginning for others.

Bojack Horseman

I think everyone has had the experience of getting so involved in a TV show that is takes over your life.  You know the symptoms – binge watching, missing meals, denying yourself sleep to watch just one more episode, eschewing social events to watch, and so on.  And the emotional effect too.   Where you dream about the characters, mull over plot points and future storylines in the time you aren’t watching, and that sick trembly feeling when you know it’s coming to an end and you somehow want it to go on forever but know it can’t.  And when the ending comes you know it has changed your life in a way you possibly can’t articulate yet, but somewhere inside something has crossed over and life will never quite be the same again.

Strong, heady stuff, and it doesn’t happen too often.  For me, with Buffy, Angel, Breaking Bad, The Wire off the top of my head.  And now, after a binge of 76 episodes in a fortnight, Bojack Horseman.

Funnily enough, the opening episodes of season one are pretty run-of-the-mill, and a bit of a drag to get through. Our eponymous hero is a washed-up anthropomorphic horse who hires a ghostwriter to pen his memoir, lives with a drop out kid who turned up at his house and never left, has a Persian cat agent/on-off girlfriend, and is friends with a smooth talking labrador named Mr Peanutbutter.  All ripe for the sort of anarchic comedy that Family Guy and The Simpsons do so well, and the first half of the season is not much more than a poor derivative of those.

But once the show hits its stride and gains some confidence, it turns into one of the most profound, moving, hard-hitting and emotional things I’ve ever seen.  What I love the most about the show is how it is not only unafraid to ask difficult questions, but also digs into the complexity of the answer, and is confident enough to say, I don’t know where I stand on this. Bojack is, in many ways, a difficult character to empathise with. He uses people to get to the top. He suffers from alcoholism and drug addiction.  He treats women like dirt.  Yet somehow we root for him.  That shows the sharpness of the scripts. They ask the most though-provoking of questions – is it possible to be redeemed after doing terrible things? Can people be forgiven for their misdemeanours? Should they be? And at the show’s heart, I think – can someone really ever escape their past?

Bojack had a shitty childhood. Terrible parents, no role models, and was influenced into the siren of alcohol and drugs at a young age. In Free Churro, one of the show’s greatest episodes, Bojack utters a 25 minute monologue at his mother’s funeral which lays bare their relationship and it’s devastating effect on his life. We sympathise, of course.  We understand, even.  But this is while some pretty awful events are taking place in his personal life that are ugly and squalid. We see the root of his issues through his childhood, but does that excuse his behaviour? Can an apology be enough? These questions come up time and again and really forces you to wrestle with them.

And all of this doesn’t even bring up the biting satire of the vacuousness of celebrity culture and the plethora of in-jokes that litter each episode. Or the razor sharp skewering of Hollywood (should be Hollywoo of course!) hypocrisy.  Episode Hank after Dark is one of the best commentaries on the #Metoo scandal anywhere, and in later seasons, as Bojack’s addictions tighten their grip, the thoughtful handling of his spiralling descent, consequent rehab, relapses and attempt to make amends is funny, heartbreaking and utterly real.  I guess the word I want is identifiable. All the characters are, in their own way, and it resonates on a higher plane then most other shows out there.

I’ve barely got into the other characters, or the quality of the story arcs, and how the episodes flow into one another perfectly, or the animation, which is superb, or the depths and nuances of the voice work, but you get the idea.  It’s a bona fide classic, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. A genuine masterpiece.

An Ice-Cream War

There aren’t many advantages to being in lockdown, but one of them is that I have been able to participate in my sister’s German book club.  The wonders of technology. And it looks like I am going to become a regular member, at least until the restrictions are lifted in Germany and the group can meet in person again (which, with the way things are going, will be sooner rather than later). I’m very grateful for their invitation to join the group, I’ve really missed not being in a book club and they are a great bunch to meet with. How long it will go on for, I don’t know.  Fingers crossed a while.

As blog readers will know, I’ve been banging on about William Boyd’s novel Any Human Heart ever since I read it.  It’s one of my favourite books of the last 5 years, and was one of my top 10 books read in 2016.  So I was excited to read another of his novels for book club, An Ice Cream War.  There was a bit of trepidation too, for my love of Any Human Heart meant I had very high expectations, and had a slight air of pessimism that I was inevitably to be disappointed.

But happily, whilst the book doesn’t hit the dizzy heights of the aforementioned, it’s a really enjoyable read. Boyd has written a number of war novels throughout his career, this one being his first, about an aspect of WW1 I knew little about, the campaign in East Africa.  The story tells the intertwining lives of five characters from across the spectrum and does so with great aplomb. I did feel there was a slight deus ex machina to get the character of Felix to Africa after his brother goes missing, but otherwise the events felt true to life, underpinned with some quite savage satire, and genuinely shocking in places.

You’d expect a war novel to contain lots of death, and this one is no exception, but even knowing this, a couple of the main character’s deaths in the book still hit hard. Felix’s brother Gabriel survived a horrific bayonet injury only to be beheaded after making his escape from a POW jail. And this death only really came about because of a miscommunication between soldiers and officer. It did highlight how survival in war was in many ways based purely on luck, and the fact that Gabriel was on the verge of escape, so close to the end of the war, was a desperate end.

His wife Charis also falls to a terrible fate. The early part of the novel charts their courting, marriage, first fumbling sexual forays, then Gabriel departs for the front line. Charis and Felix embark on a torrid affair, which results in her suicide in the duck pond of the country estate.  There is a sickening foreboding hanging over their relationship, but Boyd skilfully plants the seed that she will leave the estate for good and set up a new life elsewhere, and when her body is discovered by Felix, it provides a sharp shock. The trauma of war had a huge impact on those left behind as well, perhaps forgotten, and the sorrow and despair so very real.

The main comedy of the book comes from the supporting cast. As is its wont when describing war, the British officers come across as officious, bumbling, stiff-upper lip types, particularly the inept Wheech-Browning. You get a sense of the chaos and confusion of the war effort, the poor communication, the over-the-top sense of duty, the snobby patriotism, shot through with satire rather than flat-out derision. There is an argument that such characters come across as cartoonish and one-dimensional. I’d have to agree, but I don’t think the narrative suffers from that.  It’s all they need to be, and it provides some relief from the violence, tension and misery of the war scenes and their emotional effect.

It was nice to read one of Boyd’s early novels, and you can see his narrative strengths shin through.  He writes about relationships brilliantly.  Especially the infatuation and desire of the early days and the honeymoon period.  There’s always a sadness, a longing beneath the surface, and an almost helplessness when faced by the object of said desire. I think what he captures so well is the fleeting nature of it, but how, through the power of the emotions felt, it can keep you awake years later with the force of the memory.

So another solid effort to add to Boyd’s canon. Enjoyed pretty much across the board, and leaves me wanting to hunt down more of his work.

Finding A Path

I’ve written a fair amount on this blog about revising and re-writing of a novel.  My main aims are twofold: one, to get rid of any extraneous words (always too many, always too many) and secondly, to crystallise the main themes and try to bring them out as much as possible through the character’s actions. Using the ‘show, don’t tell’ principle can fulfil both these aims if applied stringently.

So this is the crux of what a re-write is for, and the ideal mindset you need to be in is for the writing to not feel like it’s yours. It’s much easier to be critical and ruthless if you can approach it in this way.  And the only foolproof method to achieve this is to leave as long as possible between drafts.

I’ve been working on the final draft of my third novel Gaslight for a few weeks now, and the experience has been unlike any of my previous re-writes. It’s the first time I’ve read any of it for at least six months, if not longer. It’s over two years since the first draft was completed, and the 18 months it took to write seems impossible to believe, now. This sense of the surreal is so much higher for me with this book than any other. Reading back, I don’t know where most of it came from, and it’s a tiny bit scary to have that feeling.

I have a shocking memory at the best of times, and the origins of this novel are pretty much lost to me. I remember starting about a month after I moved back from Australia, and mentally I wasn’t in a great place, mostly heartbroken at splitting up with my girlfriend and with the added upheaval of leaving the home I had grown to love and where I wanted to spend the rest of my days. Where the idea came from, I have no clue.  After a few sessions I thought it would end up novella length. That was the most rubbish prediction I ever made, but I’m grateful for my naivety, because if I’d known what struggles lay ahead, I would have abandoned it. Because it turned into a 200,000 word behemoth. Writing that feels ridiculous now, and was then too.

The characters took on a life of their own pretty quickly, which was a good thing, as reading back now I can’t even begin to process how fully-formed they feel. And one particular character is very dark indeed. It’s honestly a little frightening. He’s so persuasive.  Clever.  Manipulative. I’m reading it going, ‘Come on, why can’t any of you see what he’s doing?’ Then I remember it’s my creation, and I’m amazed. The character appears in the very first scene, and he felt friendly, the life and soul of the party.  That all changed pretty quick.  Considering I had no idea what he was going to do, how it all ended up feels more like a miracle than it ever has.  And if I’m having that reaction, then fingers crossed a reader will do as well. So I’m cranking up that tension as much as I can without descending into repetition.

This might sound like self-indulgent bragging but I hope it doesn’t come across like that. I guess my point is that you can surprise yourself, even scare yourself with what you can create.  What’s hidden away inside.  The most telling question an author is asked is, ‘where do you get your ideas?’ My experience from Gaslight is that it’s somewhere beyond the subconscious, impossible to define, where story and myth can be mined.  How to get there is anyone’s guess.  But if you attack the blank page with all that’s in your heart there will be a path.

Tinkering

As I wrote in my last post, I had a feeling that during the coronavirus lockdown, with the traumas of the pandemic being felt daily, that attempting to get anything creative done would be a challenge, despite everyone’s best intentions.

And for me at least, so it has proved. It’s pretty much as I suspected, with a couple of caveats. Yes, it’s tough mentally to get to a place of relative calm and fortitude where creativity can spring forth. But I’m also working very hard at the moment. Working from home may seem like a jolly but the company I work for is busier than ever during the lockdown. The ecommerce side of the business has gone through the roof, most likely because even in isolation people can still get plumbing and DIY jobs done. They’ve obviously got a lot more time on their hands.  Which is great for us, but has made our lives manic these last few weeks.

So tiredness and work stress has reared its ugly head, which hasn’t helped to say the least. A majority of our staff members have been furloughed to keep the business afloat.  The rest of us are running at double speed to keep things going by hook or by crook, and even though I sit at my desk most of the day, I find by the evenings I’m exhausted, especially mentally. To try and get myself up for writing is tough, and that’s without the anxiety about the virus, which is always bubbling beneath the surface.

With all that in mind, and again as I intimated in my last post, I’ve gone back to Gaslight to work on the final draft.  It’s been a few months since I last looked at it, which is ideal, as I can be ruthless with my cutting.  It’s the process I enjoy the most, and I hopefully I get to fall in love with the characters all over again. They should seem like old friends again as I get deeper involved. I’ve only scratched the surface so far, no more than ten pages in, but it’s been fun.  It might only be minor tinkering, but as things stand, that’s not too bad. I can certainly live with it.

 

Coronavirus and Creativity

For those of us who write, being in isolation isn’t too much of a problem. You shut yourself away, call up the Muse, and by hook or by crook, get your 500 words done or whatever your target is. Sometimes the words come tough, but you push on through. You’ve made your voluntary commitment to be alone and work.

Now that Covid-19 has struck us, isolation feels like a whole different thing. On the face of it (and I hope I’m not sounding flippant by saying this) those who work in solitary creative fields should be able to carry on despite living in what is a once in a generation pandemic, the sort of thing historians will be evaluating years from now. It’s an extraordinary situation – bars and restaurants closed, people advised to stay indoors, and working from home is the new norm. Public gatherings are not recommended, people should stay 6 feet away from each other when outdoors, and those over 70 or with underlying health conditions shouldn’t be going out at all. All of which is a huge hit to the economy, and the likelihood of a full-scale lockdown isn’t too far away.

So, unprecedented stuff. With millions now isolated at home, talk turns to how to stay occupied, and writing is near the top of the list of activities to get through the days. I’ve seen many say they are starting a diary to record the times we are living in for posterity. Others talk of learning a new skill or reacquainting with an old one – letter writing, poetry, and drawing are popular ones I have seen.

But I fear these well-founded ambitions are likely to remain unfulfilled. On the face of it, spending hours at home frees up time to get loads of writing done, but for me, this is the first work I’ve done since the outbreak. I think this is because the whole situation is pretty terrifying. I live with my elderly father, who is in the high-risk group of catching the virus. He’s fine, and has pretty much been indoors the last week, but I’m anxious about him nonetheless. And the everyday tasks are proving more difficult. I’ve spent two fruitless shopping trips trying to buy toilet paper thanks to the stockpiling idiots, and these setbacks play on the mind. I’m very conscious of not coming into close contact with others on these trips, and on the whole outings are somewhat nerve-wracking. My sister lives abroad and I worry about her too. So when I’m at home I want to escape with a Netflix show to take my mind off things rather than try and write, which feels like a huge task at the moment. This is without turning on the news and getting a daily dose of worry as the worldwide case and death numbers continue to spiral. Low-level anxiety is not conducive to anything, let alone good writing.

I appreciate this comes across as a first-world problem when our heroic NHS workers are putting themselves on the line every day. I wanted to take a break after the first draft of State Line, and I am having one. Maybe I will settle into a better mindset as the weeks pass, and I can at least do some editing of previous drafts to keep ticking over. I guess we all have to bear in mind that this global pandemic is something none of us have ever experienced before, with its inherent dangers and restrictions. We’re all feeling our way forward, trying to do our best. It will still be there in the morning.

Crossing the Line

So, novel number four is in the bag.  First draft at least. I say novel, but it’s in that slightly strange territory of being too long for a novella, and much shorter than a standard length novel. Came in at 55,000 words, so I would expect to lose at least five thousand of those once the whole thing is done.  We shall see.

I had a similar feeling when writing the conclusion that I did for the denouement of Gaslight. My work ethic for this novel has been atrocious – 500 words a day, if that. I always tend to speed up once I near the finishing line as I start to see how it’s going to pan out. I think this happens for two reasons. One, I’m genuinely excited to see what’s going to take place. And two, I just want to get it done so I can have a rest!

These reasons are perfectly understandable, but I’m not sure they encourage good writing.  It took me 8 months to write the first 50,000 words of this novel. 2 days to write the rest.  For Gaslight I wrote 4,500 words in one frenzied afternoon to get to completion. And my nagging feeling is that both endings feel a little rushed. I’m going back to do a final edit for Gaslight next, after a much needed break, and I know that the last 10,000 words or so will need the most revision. I’m certain this novel will be the same. The balance between getting it done and doing it well is one I’m not sure I’ve mastered.  I find the emotion of the moment makes it difficult to focus.

Still, I feel the same mixture of pride and relief that it’s done, and the usual privilege that the characters let me into their lives for the duration. I think this novel has a nice, primal quality to it, and I’ve written in a style I’ve always wanted to – part road movie, part chase, part Bonnie and Clyde style romance.  It’s been a hell of a lot of fun. It’s called State Line, and I’m glad I crossed it.

Ego vs Humility

I saw an interesting tweet from the author Joanne Harris the other day, which talked about the often opposing emotional responses that a writer has to wrestle with once they are serious about putting their work out into the world.  One, to possess the ego to talk positively about their writing, pat themselves of the back a bit and be confident to say that yes, you are worthy.  And on the other, have the humility to accept criticism without flying off the handle.

Neither of which I’m very good at.

To start with the latter, I’ve not had much experience of strident criticism of my work. I remember somebody whose opinion I respected saying they didn’t like the ending of one of my novels. It hurt, because it was someone I really wanted to wow (I was kind of in love with her to tell the truth – which is not a fair position to put someone in to start with!), but once I’d calmed down, it was OK. If 100 people had all said the same thing then I would have had a problem with the novel which needed addressing, but you can’t please everyone all the time, so I let it go.

But to be fair virtually everyone who has read any of my stuff is friend or family.  There have been a couple of exceptions, but it mainly holds true.  And this feeds on to the ego thing, because I’ve been reluctant/lazy to really make my work accessible, and to self-promote.  You can find the majority of my stuff on this blog, but only if you persevere. So I need to start getting better at that.

With that in mind, in the next couple of weeks another page will be added to this blog. I’m envisaging it as a kind of bibliography of all my writing so far.  I’ll list my novels, novellas and short stories and where they can be found.  I want to try and keep a vague record of all the writing I’ve done in my life, so this will include some work that isn’t fit for human consumption, but I want to have it there anyway, even if only for personal nostalgia.  I’ll also link to my social media feeds, Goodreads profile and anything else I can think of. This is only scratching the surface, but I’ve got a body of work behind me now, and if I can generate some interest, then hopefully I can work on that whole humility thing.

So, keep an eye out and the page should be up soon.