Thursday, 30 October 2008

Feeling at home

I like going abroad but I’m even fonder of coming home again.
I like home.

France is a fascinating, beautiful, rich country but I couldn’t live there; I have known for years that I couldn’t live, permanently, anywhere non-Anglophone. Though I’m a competent linguist and pick up languages quickly, I know that I would never reach the stage where I would simply be able to open my mouth and speak my thoughts in the way that I can in English. I can say this with certainty because I was brought up as bilingual as it is possible for a person to be who does not have parents who speak different native languages and I was always aware that I thought in English, never in Welsh. However easily Welsh came to me, it never came with quite the fluency of English, there was never the sensation that language formed no barrier to thought.

And, quite simply, communication is so important to me that I couldn’t possibly forgo the ability to communicate effortlessly with the people around me.

I know I’d get by. I’m fairly confident I’d be able to do more than get by after a while but it wouldn’t be enough.

The sunshine wouldn’t be enough either. I know I’m sufficiently contrary that I would begin to miss clouds and rain and frost and drizzle after a while.

Quite apart from the language thing, there’s another barrier to living somewhere other than Britain. Like lots of writers, I’ve always felt that I exist on the edge of things, always an onlooker, an observer, never quite a full, self-forgetful participant. There’s always a part of me which is standing aside, watching myself doing things. I’m never more than an unwary step away from a feeling of alienation, a feeling that I don’t belong, that I’m not quite part of things in the way that other people are.
If I feel that in my own country, imagine how much of an outsider I’d feel elsewhere.

What do other writers reading this feel? Is alienation a common affliction for those of us whose default setting is ‘observe’? Is easy, thought-to-speech communication a fundamental need for you, too, or is that a foible of mine?

Such are the thoughts generated by a holiday….

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Code word thingies

Is it just me, or have the 'I'm not a spammer' code word thingies on Blogger turned from random jumbles into vaguely credible words? They suddenly seem far easier to get to grips with and type.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

My Secret Vice...

Neil Ayres, over at the Veggiebox which he shares with Aliya Whitely, has started a meme. It’s not one with loads of questions; in fact it has only one question – what’s your secret vice?

So far, people’s secret vices seem to be rather TV and film based. OK, I have that sort of vice too but it is AS NOTHING compared to my real vice.


Yes, rucksacks. Bags which you carry on your back, with shoulder straps. They’re everywhere now, from schoolchildren’s backs to pensioners’ garden-wandering shoulders and every kind of back in between. You can get teeny weeny little diamante encrusted numbers (except why would you?) and mammoth things which look as if they would literally hold the kitchen sink as you backpacked around the known universe. Everybody’s got one these days.

But I loved rucksacks well before all this ubiquity. I have loved them since I was thirteen and saved up my pocket money to buy my first one from my Mum’s catalogue – a grey canvas number with two outside pockets fastened with leather straps and buckles and leather shoulder straps. You pulled the thing closed with string strung through eyelet holes and buckled it up. Nobody had heard of snaplock buckles in those days. Nobody outside the American military had thought of ripstop nylon and waterproofed materials in the context of rucksacks. If you wanted things inside to stay dry, you put them in a plastic bag. Or a bin bag if you had a bigger rucksack, like the one I went around bits of Germany and Scandinavia with in my second summer at university. A huge blue karrimor beast with an external aluminium frame. I was also accompanied by my friend Jane, but she is not what this post is about.

Lots of people carry all their baby-changing paraphernalia in a rucksack now (from Mothercare, natch). I did it nineteen years ago in one from Milletts. It didn’t have a changing mat or a bottle pocket. Not that I had any time for either of those things anyway, but you get the point. If it can be carried in a rucksack, I will carry it in a rucksack.

My family is tolerant of my vice. If I don’t buy or otherwise acquire a rucksack in any given calendar year, I tend to develop a tendency to stand outside Millets, Blacks, Field and Trek or luggage shops with my little nose pressed against the window, muttering about compression straps, map pockets and attachment points. As we walk down the relevant street (in Canterbury all three outdoors shops are within 50 yards of each other – bliss or torture depending on my rucksack-affording status) one of the boys is apt to bark ‘step away from the rucksack shop, Mum!’ or take my by the arm and gently steer me away, depending on how manic the gleam in my eye is.
The Other Half is kinder, she lets me go in and stroke them.

So, for your delight and delectation, may I introduce a few of the current stars of my rucksack collection.

Cue music...

This is my current 'everyday' rucksack. Just big enough to get my little laptop into if I need to. I don't do handbags, this is as handbaggy as I get.
This one's a recent acqusition, replacing one I used for more than ten years ( I may be acquisitive, but I ain't fickle) until the main zip gave out a couple of months ago. I haven't been able to bring myself to throw out this old friend yet:

Then there's the walking rucksack for when the hiking fit is upon the Other Half and me...

...which also doubles as the 'I'm going shopping' rucksack for carrying loads of rice and stuff from the local wholefood shop.

The leather 'it's not a briefcase' rucksack:

...and the piece de resistance, the good old backpacking rucksack. This is the one I took when I went to the Reading Rock Festival last year with the Ultimate Frisbee Freak and the Bassist. It's still got the multicoloured straps i used to attach things to it...

I could go on, and on.....but as regular readers of this blog are probably already doing the cyber-equivalent of sidling away nervously and wondering whether to delete me from their favourites list, I shall desist.

I blame Neil... then again, perhaps I should have just talked about my dodgy addiction to the Archers...

Monday, 20 October 2008

Busman's holiday?

As I said in my last blog-post, I had intended that our time away in the Cevennes should be a complete break from the work in progress but things keep breaking in, and not entirely as a result of my inability to stop thinking about the book. So, as the weather is horrible today, I thought I’d tell you about one of the break-ins.

On the day after we arrived, there was a wedding in the village. As we’re across the valley from the church here, we wouldn’t have known anything about it but for the local custom which involves driving from church to reception-venue with one’s hand held permanently on the car’s horn. This produces an ever-increasing cacophony of horns at all kinds of pitch which, in the stillness of a remote French valley where every car engine is audible, is quite something.

So, why did this remind me of the work in progress, sitting on laptop and memory stick at home? Because this local custom is – I think - a remnant of the tradition of charivari whereby some marriages (and, more specifically, consummations) would be greeted by a noisy accompaniment from village people. Though this is known as a French custom, the sources I have read (for reasons which become obvious in a minute) suggest that it may, once upon a time, have been a far more widespread European folk-custom which sought to regulate and regularize marriage practices.

The reason I have been reading about folk customs is that a colourful one appears in my current book. The carrying of the ceffyl pren, or wooden horse, is likely (apparently) to be an offspring of the same ancestor as the charivari. Used, in the period in which my current book is set, as an tool of social disapproval, the ceffyl pren probably had its origins in a charivari-like ceremony which was then, by extension, invoked to punish those who were failing to be married in an acceptable way – wife beaters, adulterers and those who fathered and then rejected illegitimate children were all suitable candidates to be made to mount the wooden horse and be paraded and jeered at all around the village, with a little rough-handling from the men en route to make sure they mended their ways.

By the nineteenth century, its use had been extended far beyond marital misdemeanours and was used to punish anybody who was infringing generally-held social rules that were not otherwise safeguarded by the law. Cheaters, swindlers, sellers of substandard produce – anybody could find their door being knocked on in the middle of the night by a mob of their neighbours beating drums and blowing horns to create the maximum public kind of embarrassment as the miscreant rode around the village on an uncomfortably thin wooden horse.

The Rebecca Riots – rural unrest sparked off by the multiplication of illegal and overcharging tollgates on turnpike roads and the central theme of the work in progress – used the ceffyl pren and its associated carnival to great advantage. Men dressed as women, their faces blacked, rode out at night to right the wrongs being perpetrated in their community. And sometimes got a little out of hand...

From marriage 2008 via agricultural workers’ protests back into the mists of European folk history… as a novelist with a strong historical bent it seems I’ll never be safe from my source material; perhaps I should have brought the laptop after all…

Thursday, 16 October 2008

We're all going on an autumn holiday...

Having worked some time in lieu I have next week off from the day job as well as the following week (half term) so the Other Half and I are off to France to stay with her mother for a bit, leaving the Ultimate Frisbee Freak and the Bassist to fend for themselves for a week or so (with a freezer full of food…) They are under strict instructions not to let us come back to find that our feet stick to the floor and we can’t see any surfaces for unwashed crockery…

I was going to take my beloved laptop and put in a couple of hours’ work a day on the novel but, having thought about my current productivity (poor), I have decided to take a break. I have been working on the wip solidly for four and a half breakless months since the OH and I had a week’s walking in the Peak District, so I reckon I’m due a bit of a brain-holiday.

As I’m taking the only thing I bought with my recent royalty cheque – a new digital SLR camera – there will, hopefully, be some decent-ish pictures of the Cevennes in autumn to stick up here when we return.

Meanwhile, don’t do anything I wouldn’t.

PS, what about The White Tiger winning the Man Booker, eh?

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

I think JK Rowling is a narrative genius

Garrghh! The internet… Or rather internet service providers… Or, more specifically, BT telephone exchanges…
Thanks to one or more of these factors we won’t be getting a new ISP anytime soon, so all my hard work changing my email address and letting everybody know was a waste of time.
I say again, Garrghh…

I shall not vent my spleen a la Marcus Brigstocke on the Now Show (excruciatingly funny on the subject of his internet service provider’s shortcomings – can’t remember who they were but never mind, best not anyway [sorry to those who aren’t avid BBC Radio 4 listeners who will be baffled by these references.]
Instead, I shall pick up on a theme from a recent post on Tim Stretton’s blog. J K Rowling. What has the poor woman done to provoke such animus? (Not from Tim, I hasten to add..) Not to mention resentment and envy.
All it seems to me that she has done is write the most extraordinary series of children’s books since Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series.

A commenter on Tim’s blog is a prime example of the kind of thing often said about the Harry Potter books; not – one suspects – always by people who have actually read the books.

He is representative of the kind of thing Rowling is routinely criticised for.

Sample criticism 1: The Harry Potter books are a success because they are based on a clever idea, it’s just a shame JKR can’t write.

This implies that the person levelling the criticism thinks ‘writing’ is nothing more than prose style, the putting of one word after another into well crafted sentences; that inventing a unique setting, an internally consistent and believable world in which the great struggle between good and evil is satisfyinglyplayed outwith emotional realism is nothing more than cheap trickery which anybody could manage after breakfast and before lunch.

Sample criticism 2: The books’ popularity is entirely down to the unfeasible attractiveness of Hogwarts and the japes which go on there.

OK, Hogwarts is a wonderfully seductive place – no bedtimes, wonderful meals, competition between houses, freedom from pretty much any rule outside the classroom, Dumbledore’s twinkly wisdom at the helm - what’s not to like? But I think this criticism completely ignores the fact that the Harry Potter books are actually far deeper than simple boarding-school-with-magic stories. They’re full of archetypes which, as any storyteller knows, is the best way to ensure that your books hook the readers in ways they don’t understand; and they’re about the eternal battle between good and evil. Neither archetypy nor the eternal verities are typical elements of most school stories. And, let’s face it, Hogwarts is not what has hooked hundreds of thousands of adults on the books, is it? [No, it’s not. At least not this adult.]

Sample criticism 3: JKR can’t write, has a dreadful prose style and so many other variations on a theme of ‘how can she have made this much money when we think our prose is far more deathless?’ that it makes me sick.

Style. Hmmm. OK, it’s not going to win the Pullitzer prize and the Man Booker judges haven’t troubled JK much. But let’s not forget something fundamental – these books are aimed primarily at children. Personally I think that’s something other YA writers of series have lost sight of in their rush for the 'crossover' market. I found at least one other highly successful 'children's' trilogy so bleak by the final volume that, had I read it as a child, I would have been deeply troubled.

Sample criticism 4: She just bolted lots of winning formulae together. To whit school story, magic story, cinderella story.

There are elements of all those things in the Harry Potter books but, for me at least, the narrative which makes up the series is far more than the sum of its parts. I don’t think JKR has just done a literary cut-and-shunt. I think she’s created a consistent and believable world. Magic is an excellent and ancient symbol for power and the witting misuse of magic is – in the Harry Potter books – always a misuse of power. The books are about power and its moral/ethical use to a far greater extent than they are actually about magic. That’s why they work for adults. If they were just about magic, they’d only work for small children who are OK with inconsistency and things happening improbably and without consequences.

Sample criticism 5: Her editors must be doing some of the writing because the books are a lot better now than they were at the beginning.

Are they?
Personally I don’t see the Harry Potter oeuvre fundamentally as a series of 7 books. I think they have to be seen as a continuous story, much like the Lord of the Rings (Nobody ever says, Oh, I really liked the Fellowship of the Ring but I didn’t go much for Two Towers or the Return of the King, do they?)
JK Rowling knew how the whole series was going to pan out from the very beginning and I think that shows. So I don’t see one book as better than another and I think those who think the later books are better than the earlier ones are just reflecting the fact that they have been progressively drawn in to Harry’s world. Those of us who found the world vivid and compelling from the beginning find locating our favourite HP book quite difficult.

The blog commenter on Tim’s blog also comes up with a less representative gripe as well:

To my mind the greatest sin Rowling commits is the clumsy and inappropriate juxtaposition of the cutesy and the deadly serious. It seems like she either couldn't make up her mind, or couldn't come up with a story that worked one way or the other.

That would be like Shakespeare in Hamlet, then. Gravediggers with laboured jokes… obviously the man didn’t know he was writing a tragedy.
Would we care about Harry if it wasn’t for the ‘cutsey’ elements with his friends and, presumably, the Weasley family in the Burrow? If the whole series was ‘deadly serious’ wouldn’t we be a bit tired and harrowed by the end of Philosopher’s Stone, never mind the rest of the series?
For me the juxtapositions of high and low drama are not clumsy but well-thought out, the ebb and flow of the heartbeat of life, pathos and bathos, tragedy and comedy.

I’ll come out and state my position with absolutely no embarassment at all – I think JK Rowling is a narrative genius.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

My two hats

Generally, my day job – working with teenagers on the autism spectrum – doesn’t really intersect with my writing life at all, apart from the need to think very carefully about what you say before you say it. (Misunderstandings, as those of you in any way acquainted with an individual on the spectrum will know, arise easily and are not necessarily as easily cleared up...)

But then, along came Vicky Warren from The Bookfiend’s Kingdom. Vicky runs her site entirely in order to draw attention to the work of The Disabilities Trust which look after adults with autism, and to raise money for it. And, to do this, she talks to a lot of writers and works her way around the country tirelessly talking to novelists about their books, going to book fairs and generally being seen about at literary happenings.

She interviewed me in May and, a couple of days ago, I heard from her again, telling me that she had chosen Testament as her October book of the month.
How kind! Something tells me she really does like my book.

When she interviewed me, Vicky asked whether I’d be interested in writing something on what I do in the day job for her site. Given the state of the work in progress, I said I’d love to but would have to take a rain check. I’d still like to but the rain check’s still in my pocket (getting a bit limp) as the wip’s nowhere near finished as yet.

But, if and when I get around to writing my piece for the BFK on working with high functioning autistic teenagers in a grammar school setting (or whatever catchy title I manage to come up with, certainly not this one) it will be weird for both bits of my working life to be together under the same cyber-roof.

I’ve often thought of writing a book called something like ‘Ten Things every Parent of an Autistic Child should Know’.

If I did, would I publish as Alis Hawkins or would that just get horribly confusing?

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

That most delicate subject...

So, today is a very significant one in my life as a writer. No, we didn’t get signed up to a new internet service provider – haven’t even got our migration authorisation code yet and we can’t begin the move until that arrives, so we’re still on line here chez Bizarre – no, today I got my first proper royalty cheque, the one in March having only covered the period up til Christmas, ie before Testament was published.

And you know what? I feel rich.
OK, objectively I am far from rich. The amount I’ve earned is less than a third of the annual sum I gave up in cutting back on paid work but it’s still more money than I’ve ever earned in one go before. And it’s the only money I’ve ever made from writing, never having been one of those writers who enjoyed years of success in the short fiction market before moving seamlessly into novels.

And I noticed a strange thing in contemplating this royalty cheque - money earned from writing feels more worthwhile than other money.
Perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that, instead of being paid by some faceless bureaucracy which doesn’t actually have the smallest idea what I do on a day-to-day basis, the cheque sitting on my kitchen table is made up of myriad individual purchases by the reading public (even if some of them are prospective and German)
That’s why the money feels more worthwhile, because people have paid it over for this particular, specific, unique thing – my book.

So, on this very significant day in my writing life I would like to say thank you to all the people out there who have parted with their hard-earned cash to buy a hardback copy of Testament.

I am humbly and genuinely grateful.