Friday, 25 September 2020

Reading as a Writer. Lockdown inspiration. My comment on Roberto Bolaño's novel The Savage Detectives


Reading as a  Writer - Lockdown Inspiration.

The themes of identity and poetry, anarchy and politics flow through the voices of the men and women in The Savage Detectives by Chilean writer  Roberto Bolano.  Throughout the novel a sense irony, melancholy, madness, regret and paranoia all emerge through the stories told by his characters We encounter unfamiliar labels: ‘visceral realism’  ‘stridentist’ are scattered around like raisins in a rich pudding.

And there are arresting phrases:

‘We talked about poetry, bullfighters, politicians.’

‘… up to my ears in ghosts.’

‘You have to love your life that’s all there is to it. Literature is crap.’

‘There’s a hired killer after every publisher.’

 ‘The shadows that face all editors in the end.’

 ‘That was the end of everything.’

In Bolano's novel the widely varied characters speak directly to the reader, as though he or she is sitting with a group of friends or acquaintances. The time switches confidently backwards and forwards between the 1960s to the 1970s just as the stories embedded in it swing across the world.  The novel sings hymns to the identity and history of Mexico and the greater South American world. We hear of stories set in Barcelona and Paris, in Vienna and Santiago.

This is a novel about time passing.  It’s a novel about books and poetry. It’s about travelling. It’s about dancing. It’s about political activism, about drinking and about sex. At its centre is a passion for books. (One character steals books from bookshops in a range of cities). The novel explores the nature of writing and editing, and the philosophy of existence.

We learn this through the mysterious illuminations of character through the stories they tell and through the filter of wide range of characters – both men and women - in a language that appears simple. But it is only superficially simple expressed as it is in sophisticated and poetically worked short sentences.

Much of the philosophising is kind of barter between individuals. A linking element is an old man who is his stories to some boys. In the middle of the story he will address them directly from time to time in.

In the very last story he, the storyteller, lists all the characters in the stories, reminding one of the mythic storytellers of Greece.

A Note: I discovered the work of Bolaño through an article by Francine Prose* whose enthusiasm made me seek out his work. Boleño has also been described by the magisterial Susan Sontag as “the real thing and the rarest”.

*Francine Prose: What To Read and What To Write.


Tuesday, 18 August 2020

My Big Sister Boudicca


      I have been locked down and shielding nearly six months now. I have the evidence of this extraordinary isolation in my rather untidy notebook.

 These conditions, for good or ill, lead to excess introspection – a detailed examination of the present, future and - particularly if you are my age – the past.

 So was that one day my late sister took residence in my imagination. I loved her deeply and for a long time she was my heroine.  So one day, notebook on knee,  shielding myself beneath my trees, I started talk to her about the hard times of our growing up, which we faced in very different ways.


           Big Sister

Your hair is the colour of a bright penny

much admired by  everyone.

 Mam - also red-haired -says,

“Like Boudicca and the first Elizabeth.

great women, both.”


At first you wear your hair in long plaits,

hooked up with green ribbons. One day

I sit on the stairs listening to them row

when – school looming - she insists

on cutting off those long plaits;


My own hair – curly and tangled, mostly unkempt -

means that eventually I’m christened Medusa

by cruel boys at school, where clever does not count

and  I’m never picked for teams and am ignored

by you in corridors. Unhappy times.


And each day with my tangled hair

and slipshod ways I walk ten paces

behind you  on our way to school.

You do not turn. And I feel   

 I am not here.


But with your clever mind and bright penny hair  

you find your place among the racy girls

who admire your dancing style and love

those green shoes with four-inch heels –  

that Mam has bought  for you on credit .


At school your friends - too cool to study –

hold you back,  drag you down,

and stop you showing your clever brain.

(Even so, you still go on into the world

and rise to the top. )


With Mam working at the factory

your cool friends visit  our tiny house,

roll back the rug, put Bill Haley

on our Dansette player – also bought on credit –

and start to dance


But I am here, lying on the sofa, half asleep -

these days playing truant seems to be my only option.

“Hey lass!” says the coolest girl. “Are you off school again?”

But you just stand there before the mirror, back-combing

your bright penny hair into a bouffant style.


Wednesday, 10 June 2020

Sirens - we face the uniformed wall

  As I’ve mentioned here before my Lockdown project is diving into fifty years of notebooks to see what pearls I come up with. Anyway in a 2017 notebook I found this poem called Sentinels. I have spent some time polishing it a bit, ready to join in new collection to be called With Such Caution.

And this week I’ve also been looking with some sympathy at the reportage around the Black Lives Matter demonstrations around the country and around the world. 

One account which touched me very deeply was a demonstrator’s account of her experience  of what is, apparentlycalled ‘Kettling’ (such a deceptively domestic term!) This is a really terrifying police strategy for controlling and containing demonstrators. 

I have said here before of my novels, that writing  fiction has allowed me to see through space and time.  This happens more through accident than design.

Looking at this poem  I see  that I was morphing into  the feelings I have now, years later,  when I am seeing the images of the police in action controlling the Black Lives Matter demonstrations.


They  stand there, the sirens -
short hair, muscular demeanour -
bluff, pragmatic - family men
here on the wrong planet perhaps.
‘I thought you were illegal.’

So much standing, waiting - .
suiting  standing, bristling types.
My Remegel and Ventolyn
are briefly challenged -
stupid me, still keeping  them in my bag

We face the uniformed wall with its 
 bullet-proof screens, which gives them  
an illusion of security -  
a sense of enclosure -
 without prioritising our safety.

                                                        Written 2017 Polished 2020

Lockdown Notebook Project

Monday, 1 June 2020

Writing In Lockdown – The Stone Circle

Living in Lockdown is very much like living in a dark perpetual present with the feeling of death all around. But in this state I find my mind wandering back to other ‘presents’ which – I realise now - were to prove to be the roots of a whole range of novels. This is been hammered home to me in the last year as I worked on the stories in the Kaleidoscope collection - each fictional story set at some point in my 50 year past and rendered in the telling as the present. On reflection all my novels emerge from a sense of the present in the past: rendering the past as though it were the urgent, vibrant present. (The fictional stories in Kaleidoscope are  full of these urgent allusions. See right.)
And recently I have discovered -  in deep-diving into my 50 years of notebooks - how much my own present is bedded significantly in my own past. As well as this I am struck by how much an enduring sense of place has always featured in my writing.

I am not unique. I know that many writers clearly operate in the past in the present. And they add meaning to their fiction by their deep sense of place.  There are eminent examples of this – for instance we have Pat Barker bringing to present, urgent life the time of the Trojan wars and Hilary Mantel reliving for us turbulent Tudor times which have so many parallels in the present day.  

Anyway  the deep dive into my notebooks (from about 2008) I have discovered my poem called The Stone Circle. And now it occurs to me that in these stones crafted by human hands the present lives of the makers thousands of years ago still endure and add meaning to our contemporary lives. Certainly they have to mine.

 The Stone Circle

This stone circle was  formed 
by the chip chipping of men with skilful fingers.
And now it survives although though
 their string has withered  and their chalk 
has crumpled

Its original purpose was for,
 people coming  from miles around, to meet
at moon-rising to exchange their goods - 
and cream the profit from  
their surplus.

They sit here still, ghostly,  
in this green place surrounded by hills.
It mirrors the sun, which burns
  up there, not  acknowledging
 its puny planets.

ps. In writing this now I am reminded of lunchtimes in my Northern working class school when I escaped the pressures of the schoolyard and wandered around nearby graveyard making up stories in my head about the people whose names I read on the stones. I was nine years old and knew then I would be a writer. A working class writer, It seems they are trending now...

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Writing in Lockdown.

This time of lock-down has come to visceral life for me when I turn the pages of some of the hundred notebooks on my shelves as I look out of my window at the green of my garden and my ancient trees.

These days I am more conscious than ever of the birds, both in my trees and up in the sky: enticing images of freedom now as I see and hear them in my confinement.

In one of my notebooks I found this poem called The Birds written in 2002 about the different world inhabited by birds. These days I think I took for granted their sense of  freedom.  

Now I have resurrected re-read this poem  again and have  polished it just a bit.

Here it is.

The Birds

A line of birds scratches its way
across the gunmetal grey
of an April afternoon.
Its waivering form begins
to evolve
into a double V.

Their direction is North.
They discover their way by
following their inner tick
and escaping the sultry fog
of unseasonable warmth
above the surging bulbs.

Original version 29th December 2002
Polished April 2020

Saturday, 16 May 2020

Poems in lock-down, 'the tramp-tramp of mercenary feet...'

In my last post I wrote about my trees, with my eye sharpened through lock-down. Another lock-down preoccupation has been making my way through hundreds of the notebooks which are the roots of all my writing 

And I found this poem – also called Trees – in the October 2002 notebook.
The poems  are similar, but  as you will notice, different. This one alludes, I now see, to the Roman occupation of the North. I recall now that I was also, at the time, writing my novel The Pathfinder which is set in post Roman Britain.

Here you are: 

Green light drips onto sooty bark.
The white sun forges pathways
onto petals of yellow aconite
spotlighting chunky bluebells
awakened from their ancient bulbs.

Raw branches push outwards and up
escaping the broad  trunk -
a descendent of the ancient woodland
rooted here predating the existence of
 the whole  town, the main street. 

That straight road still echoes with
the tramp-tramp of mercenary feet
pacing the land, holding it in thrall
for an emperor lounging now
 in glimmering Mediterranean light.

Now this child walks through the trees
trailing her hand on the roughened bark. 
She puts her face to the sky and savours
the pearls of rain that drop from her
round row into  her closed eye.

Sunday, 3 May 2020

Three Sisters - Trees From My Window

Like so many people in this lock-down emergency I have found it hard to concentrate on my normal creative pattern of reading and writing. The public dilemma tends to bleed one of both emotional and physical energy.

But finally, finally I have begun to write again, inspired by this semi imprisoned situation – liberated by looking out of my big bay window.

Thing are different now aren’t they? I have abandoned my little writing room upstairs and also my bigger office downstairs and retreated to the single writing table inside the bay window on the sunny side of the house. This is always a favourite place.

From here I can see the overgrown lawn and the over-sprouting shrubs - suffering from enforced neglected throughout this lockdown. But more important than this I can see the trees all around this garden which – when the house was built 150 years ago - was a piece of ancient woodland belonging to the Dean and Chapter – the office of the Bishop of Durham.

So, relishing an escape from interminable domestic commitments, I have spent my lock-down at my table writing, supervised by the hares who act as my quality controllers. They are mad March hares. It certainly has been a mad March, hasn’t it?

Locked down here I have become obsessed with the movement and identity of my ancient trees.
So here is my first completed work in progress -   a short-line pieces called 

  Three Sisters

 With fluttering leaf-fingers
and nobbly branch-elbows
three lanky sisters stand
side by side,  elbow to elbow,
nodding their heads and
gently touching each other,
relishing the ever present chime of birdsong.
Their ancient brothers,
high as the house,
stride the steep bank
unimpeded by ivy.
Tangled up, overgrown -
their thick trunks are
embroidered with wild, wandering creepers.

Ankle-deep in the skeletons of
five-year-old leaves, the pathways
wind between the trees. And
bluebells, spawned by ancient bulbs,
blunt-nose their way between the
roots of ancient colonising trees -
 a deep blue glimpse through
the veil of filtered sunlight.

Outside my window
three lanky sisters
stand side by side.

Wendy Robertson. May 2020 


 Keep Safe, keep well Wx

Monday, 6 April 2020

Truth And Fiction Like Two Hands Clasping…

Buy?     Click Here

 Early Days

When the majority of my books – around 15 - came to life my only contribution was to take an intense  year to research and write each novel and deliver my completed manuscript to my publisher on  November 30 ( the date agreed in the commissions). I dealt with two major publishers - Hodder & Stoughton and then Headline – now Hachette.

I posted my  precious manuscript – which some writers may tell you becomes like a baby in your life – to my talented editors, Anne Williams and later Harriet Evans  (now a successful novelist herself). I would get it back from them by Christmas. complete with some changes inspired by their  insightful comments.

Interestingly enough Anne always insisted that they were suggestions, not instructions. Through time I had great advice from both Anne and Harriet which has entered my permanent writing process.

After that I returned the amended manuscript  to my editor  who entered it into  post- editing production involving formatting and cover design processes. I don't think I was aware then that it takes more than a  village to raise a novel. Since I have started going it alone I am very aware of that.

The production safely  in process, I would then begin to  prowl around my shelves, my growing pile of heavily scored notebooks - and  in the busy universe of my mind - to ponder an  arena of  people, life and history that would be the basis for my next novel. This was - and is still - my professional habit and routine through a many years.

By the time the novel appeared in the Spring I would be writing again, always voyaging into very different territory. In the meantime my  publisher's marketing department took care of the (rather limited - I wasn't famous after all...) promotion process. 

The novels were well reviewed - mostly in provincial presses across England and in  some magazines, although they never reached the magisterial heights of the literary broadsheets. I was from the North, after all and I had come from a working, rather than the literary background. I notice that this issue of being ‘from the working class’ is quite a trend nowadays. When I was first writing  I was distinctly pre-trend: there were no literary festivals therefore no platforms for my kind of writing. There was no Internet and no metropolitan networking - this  was strictly for already established writers. I had no contacts – my novels were published, as it were, out of the blue by Headline in its earliest days. I have my then editor Anne Williams and later Harriet Evans to thank for that.

As each book came out I would write some articles about the ideas underlying it,  I would do a few presentations.  But really I was free to get on with writing the next - very different - novel. This was, of course,  as well as working at my full-time job, as well as being a companion for my hard-working husband and nurturing my two children. Of course they are very big people now. Bonjour  @lickedspoon 

When i became a professional writer, the writing of popular novels was a virtual cottage industry before it became corporatised and monetised, with - it seems to me - increasing distance from the intense personal creative activity which had been all about dreaming up  stories and writing them down. In had became clearer that my thriving career  could not survive, based as it was on  instinct and a powerful storytelling imperative, rather than the somewhat rigid and perhaps stereotyped perceptions of The Market.  

 Going It Alone?
I had always made a living alongside my profession but never expected to make a fortune through my writing. (I think people tend to hope this nowadays…). The professional and artistic satisfaction for me was always the possibility of seeing the novels out there being read, and hearing readers response to my stories.

And this is why and how – my children grown and flown - I began to explore ways in which I could still write my novels and shepherd them into the market myself. So I started to write novels for myself, creating a very tiny imprint called Damselfly Books in order to locate them. 

So I proceeded to  publish Paulie’s Web – a novel emerging from my seminal experience as writer in residence in a women’s prison. I wrote The Pathfinder – a novel exploring my inner fascination with my Celtic roots which keep re-emerging in my philosophies and ideas - and in my novels. This always seem to me to be begging for some fictional expression. I went on to write the novel called The Bad Child, focusing on my work as an educator and the fact that middle children – (I myself was one and I was observing my niece, also a middle child, as another) – could be independent, rebellious and self-activating – rather different from their siblings. This is how my very special  Demelza came to life in this novel.

Becoming Alice emerged from my increasing professional interest in the complex connections between what appears to be pure fiction and what seems to be true memoir. This novel was to be the first of three novels set in the arc of public and private life between 1941 and the Millennium. It is no accident that this time-span just happens to be the arc of my own life fully realised in the life experience of a girl called Alice. At the moment the second and third novels in this trilogy are just at the brainstorming/note-writing/plot-planning stage now.

I was now realising just how much the focus throughout my writing life had been  - rooted in my own life experience - transformed through fiction  - eventually appeared on the page. But I realised that my life experience was not unidirectional or set in a neat narrative; rather it was fragmentary – incoherent shards and fragments which took different shapes depending on how I cast my story-net. This, I thought, was rather like the toy kaliedescope that has sat on my mantelpiece for more than twenty years. Now I had my title! This was when I began to write and publish some short stories which reflected this concept more directly.

The Workshops
So it was that  last Spring -  one year ago - I presented a series of workshops on the connection between memoir and fiction. The participants were both enthusiastic and inspiring. That was when, in serious earnest, I began to pull together my stories and to write new ones which would illustrate an  original fusion of objective truth and pure fiction. This was why and how I wrote the stories one by one over this last year. And then laid them out and then I surveyed them to see just what I had created.

And now I turned to Damselfly to publish this new collection to be called Kaleidoscope - Stories from the Frontier.  This subtitle – like the nature of these short stories – was inspired by a good deal of reading, especially the work of Diana Athill and Jean Rhys. I was particularly engaged by Diana Athill’s insightful comment on the late work of Jean Rhys, with whom she worked in the last 15 years of Rhys’s long life. Athill remarked on Rhys’s writing ‘from the ‘frontiers of old age’ as being of her very best. So I had my sub-title.  

In my publishing process I’ve used the services of Word-2.Kindle   to ensure the technical standard of the text. This company were both patient and helpful, which is just what I needed as I was going it alone.  Inspired by the Kaliedoscope on my mantelpiece. For the cover design I joined forces with my artistic, literary friend Avril Joy and we designed the cover together.

The blurb on the cover of Kaliedoscope took some thinking about. It has so many functions for any new reader. Referring to oneself in the third person is truly odd. Anyway this is what I ended up with:
In this collection of short stories Wendy Robertson acquaints us with the life of career writer Ruthie Evans - rooted in the North, travelling from Ireland to Singapore and Soviet Russia, featuring characters who reflect their Twentieth Century times. In the stories Ruthie emerges triumphant – complex, highly intelligent, conflicted and full of joy: a unique and special memoir, exploring the relationship between memoir and the short story.‘…truth and fiction like two hands clasping… A rare glimpse of what it’s like to be inside the process of writing… ‘Kathleen Jones: biographer‘More than just a memoir… a masterclass in the writing process.’ Sharon Griffiths: Columnist & Author‘A powerful writer.’ Mail on Sunday.

I truly hope you enjoy reading Kaliedosope. If you like the idea of this adventurous combination of memoir and fiction you might be inspired to write a story yourself - a story which could leap out the truth of your own experience. And then another. And another.

It seems to me now that this present lock-down situation could be perfect for anyone, writer or not, to embark on such a self-enhancing and satisfying project.

Also read two earlier posts  where I discuss  the complex relationship betweem Memoir and Fiction.

If all this has made you curious about the stories. Here for you is the contents list:

Kaleidoscope: The  Stories

Keong Sak.................................................................... 1
‘I do enjoy Singapore, very much.’ Tim Rice
Watching and Feeling............................................... 18
Blake said the body was the soul’s prison
unless the five senses are fully developed andopen.’ Jim Morrison.
Masculinity............................................................... 27
‘Prithee, peace/ I dare do all that maybecome a man; / Who dares do more is none.’Shakespeare.

This Working Life...................................................... 44
Nothing will work unless you do.’ Maya

Patchouli...................................................................  53
There is nothing automatic about political
change, about liberation.’ Gloria Steinem.
Bandages................................................................... 63
No one ever told me that grief felt so like
fear.’ C S Lewis
Ruthie’s Rant............................................................. 74
Even though I was shy, I found I would get
onstage of I had a new identity.’ David Bowie.
Rudder and Bridle..................................................... 79
The faculty of the imagination is both the
rudder and the bridle of the senses.’ Simone
de Beauvoir.

Brown Velvet............................................................. 83
‘I think writers are, at best, outsiders to the
society they inhabit.’ John Irving.]
The Woman Who Loved Jesus.................................. 95
‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Educating Tegger..................................................... 104
‘The only person who is educated is the one who has learned how to learn …and change.’Carl Rogers

Governess............................................................... 118
‘.… it is the duty of the poet to obtain
citizenship for an increasing horde of nameless emotions.’ Ágnes Nemes Nagy
Going By Train......................................................... 152
‘I have learned how faces fall to bone/how under the eyelids terror lurks…’ Anna
Akhmatova, 1957

The Fox House......................................................... 165
Only connect the prose and the passion, and
both will be exalted, and human love will beseen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.’EM Forster

Story Teller’s Apprentice......................................... 179
My daughter is one of my greatest
inspirations. Every day she surprises me andteaches me something.’ Patti Smith.

White Frost on Grass - Parts One, Two & Three.....185
‘The first lie in fiction is that the author givessome order to the chaos of life.’ Isabel Allende.

Big Issue.................................................................. 212
‘Now I know what a ghost is. Unfinishedbusiness, that’s what.’ Salman Rushdie.

Tiananmen.............................................................. 231
Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your
balance you must keep moving.’ Albert



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