Monday, 2 June 2008

Thoughts from the Peak District

The Peak District - for those who have (like me until last week) never been there - is extremely fab. I’m not sure I’ve ever been to an area of British countryside which I liked more. In the southern part (or White Peak) where the Other Half and I were staying there is a dizzying combination of limestone uplands and escarpments, wide valleys green with pasture and steeply wooded river valleys. You can walk for a day and be surrounded by different kinds of landscape each hour if you plan your route carefully. And Buxton! Previously I knew it only as a bottled water; now I discover that it is an elegant Regency spa town with beautiful gardens (grade 1 listed no less) and an opera house. Opera House! Not to mention 5000 students from the university of Derby which has a campus in the town.

The weather – for once – was better in the north than in the south. In a week when it rained in Canterbury every day, we had only one day’s rain. Hooray!

I don’t know how other people do their walking but the OH and I tend to favour the companionable silence, often going half an hour at a time without uttering more than an ‘interesting white butterfly’ or ‘God, I swear these stiles are getting narrower!’ So, tramping the hills and looking at the wildlife left a part of my brain free to wander and think.

And what I thought about, amongst other things, was the work in progress. My thoughts were these:

It’s very different from Testament – will people who liked that book be disappointed?

It depends what they liked about Testament. If all they liked was the medieval setting then yes, they will find the nineteenth century angle of the wip very different. If they liked the fictitious city, Salster, they’ll find rural West Wales very dissimilar. If they enjoyed the academic politics and were looking for more of that they’ll have to make an adjustment to the nationalist politics in the new book. But if they appreciated the characters and they way they interacted with the situations they found themselves in, if they enjoyed being presented with a set of circumstances which is not most British people’s everyday experience then they’ll find a lot to like in the wip.

Should I, anyway, be trying to write books which resemble each other, like writing a series without writing actually writing a series?

I wouldn’t have thought so. How dull to keep writing (or reading) the same book over and over again. It also misses the essential ingredient of the good series – seeing the characters grow and develop through the circumstances they encounter.

How much of a contract does a first published novel make with a readership about what it can expect of subsequent books?

Thinking of novelists whom I read with the greatest pleasure I can see that they all share one central element – characters whom I believe in and engage with (not necessarily identify with) whose progress through the vicissitudes of the novel I am spellbound by. They don’t have to be dramatic, thriller-type vicissitudes. In fact, they mostly aren’t. I’ve just read The Other Side of the Bridge by Mary Lawson and a less thriller-type book it’s hard to imagine; we are firmly in the territory of family interactions here. I have seldom been as gripped by a book. Another book I read on holiday – Patrick Gale’s wonderful Notes from an Exhibition – is another which lays bare a family’s interactions; I loved it.
I would hope that I’m not breaking the contract I made with readers of Testament. The wip is another book which has characters caught up in and trying to make their way within political situations not of their own making but which they can, in some way, influence for the better or fight against, as in Testament. That the characters also have their own demons to fight and their own stories to reveal to us keeps another part of the promise which I was trying to make with Testament – to have both a defineable plot and characters who are real, and developing, people.

The holiday was also a great time in which to allow my brain to relax away from the wip which I have been working on, in one form or another, for over a year. It gave me the chance to step back from the book and to accept that it has a very different identity, that it is not ‘son of Testament’. I hope I’m moving on as a writer, developing, learning from what has gone before, what I now feel I’d like to change about Testament.
As I write this, I’m very aware that I’m about to go back to the wip. Half of me is apprehensive – what will I think of the last couple of chapters which I rattled off at a furious pace before we left for Derbyshire? The other half of me is looking forward to getting back to it, to immersing myself in that other world, those other ways of thinking.

I’ll let you know about those chapters…


David Isaak said...

You raise interesting questions. I wish I had answers.

I'm not sure what readers--or, for that matter, publishers--expect. It would be wonderful to break into that group of novelists like Jane Smiley and John Fowles who were (in the case of Jane, still can) write in different styles and genres for each book. But that's a rare thing.

And I'm not even sure what makes a story work for me as a reader! I'm inclined to jump aboard your boat and say it's characters I care about...but then I think of Poe, Borges, or any number of sci-fi and thriller writers who have written characters so thin you see through them if held up to the light; and yet I enjoyed their stories.

In other words: I know nothing. Just thought I'd share that. (One good thing about nothing--no matter how much of it you give away, you still have the same amount for yourself.)

Alis said...

Thanks for that David! I often think I know nothing either - I just have opinions, which isn't the same at all!

Tim Stretton said...

Alis, having just been away for a week I too have to pick up a wip where I left off. I hardly dare read the last couple of chapters, but I'll need to if I'm going to keep the thread going.

For now, though, jetlag calls, and artistic endeavours can wait until tomorrow.

The contract you make with the reader, I think, is that you will write 'Alis Hawkins' books. You may not be able to articulate what that means (indeed your readers may have a better sense of it). There will be some core of your writing voice which will be constant from book to book, all things being equal. The only way you break that contract is if you write something you don't feel is 'you': "Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith", by Alis Hawkins, may alienate your core audience...

KAREN said...

The Peak District is very fab - haven't been there for ages, but have lovely memories of the place.

I think if you like an author you'll happily read everything they've written, unless the genre's WILDLY different. Then a pseudonym's probably wise, like Joanne Trollope writing historical novels as Caroline Harvey.

Alis said...

Tim, Karen, thanks both very much for these comments - they're very reassuring!

Matt Curran said...

Hi, Alis

This is a very interesting post and not just because you mention my heartland – the Peak District (I'm lucky enough to live practically on the shoulder of the Peak District - west Sheffield - with a wonderful view of the hills from my back-garden. It's pretty inspiring, and you'll often find me writing away on the laptop from the garden table - weather permitting… So I totally agree with you, the Peak District is “extremely fab”!).

The whole question of sticking to a particular genre or writing style is one that’s occupied my time recently. My current project The Black Hours is quite a different beast to my first two books, and I’ve wondered what Pan Macmillan will make of it. Likewise I’ll be tinkering with a children’s novel this summer which I’ve also offered to Macmillan. And at some point in the next few years I want to write a modern horror novel – not just because I can, but also because I want to experiment and discover my writing strengths. Nine years ago I didn’t think I could write a historical fantasy. Now that I’ve written two, I want to try something different, and I think that as long these deviations are written well enough, they’ll be accepted by reader and publisher. We are, after all, new writers starting out in a career without being pigeon-holed (yet).

Failing that, we can always become more prolific and adopt pseudonyms!