Friday 27 November 2009

Where The Wild Things Aren’t

I see from trailer glimpses on television that they’re making a feature film of Maurice Sendak’s superb book Where The Wild Things Are.

I first came across this work of genius – I don’t use that word lightly – a generation ago when I was teaching five to six year olds. In that classroom there were bulging bookshelves and as you can imagine there were lots of story times – virtually on the hour every hour.

One day a little boy brought me Where The Wild Things Are so I could read it to him and his friend. The book was new to me. I turned the pages and admired the subtle and wonderful colours, the restrained, powerful language. But then I looked with concern at the alarming figures – The Wild Things – that dominate the book. They are great gargoyles with legs – each with its own alarming identity.

‘Go on! Read it!’ says the little boy, his eyes shining. ‘You’ll like it! You’ll like Max!’

It is Max’s story. He stands there defiantly on the page wearing what looks like a white Babygro (called a wolf suit) complete with hood and horns and the smug half-smiling face of a revolutionary. My five year old boys recognise him as one of themselves. We see Max raging around in his wolf suit harassing the dog with a fork and hear his mother tell him he’s a wild thing and send him to bed without his supper.

His round face tells us of his outrage at this indignity. He will not be cowed. Then in his bedroom a forest grows around his bed with an ocean lapping at its edge. (See the book to see how wonderfully Sendak evokes this…) Max, our hero, ventures into this forest and rows a boat across the ocean to the land where the Wild Things are. And here they all are! Sendak treats us to a full double spread of the monstrous wild things.

The boys beside me watch my reaction and laugh and chortle, their fingers on the wild things. When I look closer I see why. These creatures are indeed grotesque and superficially terrible and Max is very small beside them. However they are also great, gallumphing, jolly creatures and before long Max – still with the smug-hero look on his face – is their king, complete with crown over the ears of his wolf suit.

He has a fine time lording over their games but becomes tired and a bit hungry and makes for home. When he gets home the forest in his bedroom dissolves and his supper is there on the table and it is still hot.

I have to tell you I replaced that book several times in that classroom. The successive copies became worn out with sheer loving use. These small children did not need me to read it to them as it tells its own story on their terms. Some learned to read through it. One doesn’t need to be a psychiatrist or a developmentalist to note that it fit their stage in life like a key in a lock. Burgeoning power, frustrating impotence, powerful imagination, unknown worlds to conquer, the need to be loved, the need have some control – all these are bundled together in this beautiful book for the child internalise without interfering adult explanation or intervention.

As I said, it’s a work of genius.

Now this work of genius has been transformed into a film just in time for Christmas. But, I see from TV trailers this this Max is an older adventurer. He swashes and buckles rather than sits there on the page with his smug-revolutionary baby face. The Wild Things here seem cartoonesque, over- characterised. There is music, dialogue. And worst of all there is no bedroom-forest! Apparently Maurice Sendak objected to this but he had to agree to disagree and the forest was out!

The book, in short, has been de-magicked. Whereas the book is a thing that reflects and respects a small child’s inner world and can be absorbed by a child in his own time and space, the film is yet another example of adult colonisation of a piece of children’s magic for more complex un-childlike ends.

Some would say film is another kind of art and will bring more people to read Sendak’s wonderful book. I say the perpetrators should be sent to bed without their supper…


Friday 20 November 2009

Light In Winter

Winter is a good time for writing. Dark days, dark thoughts, dark feelings drive you inwards in search of light, magic and adventure. Sunday 13 102

My new novel* found it’s birth in late spring days in French Languedoc when there were still wild flowers on the byways and the riverbanks. By eleven o’clock in the old town of Agde the deep shadows of the tall buildings offered relief from the sun climbing to its mid-day zenith.

And out of this heat, out of these shadows, out of time, came my story.

So now here at home it’s my delight to escape our dark northern November and re-enter that Southern world of bright light and 189 deep shade, of an old world and a new one, as I hammer away at the final draft of my new novel.

I’m often asked how many drafts a novel goes through: a question hard to answer in these technological days.

There is the handwritten draft, then the transcription draft, when the novel really evolves. After that there may be all kinds of changes as I go through the story again and again. This may involve shipping around chapters and paragraphs to tighten the structure, adjusting events to meet to the internal logic of the story, taking out characters, putting new ones in their place, replacing prose with dialogue to increase the pace, replacing dialogue with prose to render some reassuring distance and clarity for the reader. (How much one thinks of the reader in these final drafts!) Wednesday Agde 047

How many drafts? Three? Ten? hard to tell in these days when redrafting is mostly done on the computer and does not involve painful retyping at each stage much recourse to SnoPake. My modern way might involve four printed off copies to see how the changes work on the page but these are the result of eight or ten ‘redrafts’ on the screen.

The first drafts involve great inspiration and intuitive story- making, along with the creative melding of research into a real but invented world. But these last drafts are intricate, detailed exercises in both the writer’s and editor’s craft to make sure my readers ‘get’ my idea and enjoy reading it as much as I have enjoyed writing it.

Soon it will be done and off to my agent Juliet just in time for me to dust ofStreet Scenes 002f the tree and make some winter light of my own...


* I have at last found a title, but as yet it is a secret…


Sunday 15 November 2009

A Question of Taste or a Question of Sex?

Last week, invited by writer Peg Gardner, I spent a delightful afternoon with Blyth Writers and readers. This group has the excellent idea that they should meet to support each others’ writing on three Thursdays, then meet as a reading group on the fourth Thursday.How great. I’m always telling writers that they don’t read enough. It’s like aiming to be a chef and not bothering to taste.

An even greater pleasure was that they had all read one of my novels – The Lavender House – and some had read several of them. They seemed to enjoy my deconstruction of the writing of Lavender House and generally yarning about writing and the process of publication. They asked shrewd and insightful questions and the time raced by.

Within a day I had a lovely letter from Peg, full of humbling praise. She goes on. ‘Even the men, who say LH is ‘not their kind of novel’ all agree that it is very well written and they very much enjoyed your talk.

Even the men! There we have it – sex rearing its inevitable head on relation to taste in reading. We’d touched on it in the afternoon when we were discussing the research I do for my novels (lots…)

That was when I came out with my mantra of how much I hate to see research hanging around in novels like washing on a line.

I love the hard work of research whose purpose is to inspire my imagination into a subtle apprehension of a particular time, a place or a culture, so that I can hear my characters’ voices in the proper register, so that I can share their concerns about the wide and narrow worlds in which they live.

The purpose of research for me is not to put wadges of pre-digested historical or technical information on the page for my readers to learn something without the pain of study. I did mention to the group that I thought that male readers rather went for that kind of thing: just how a gun or a chemical process works; how the neglected Gnostic Gospels tell us more about early Christianity; how men sailed warships in the seventeenth century…

A couple of the men nodded when I said that. Perhaps it was not quite the compliment they thought.

I think there are wonderful sources in history, religion, science and technology. There are amazing real life letters, diaries and biographies of great (and terrible!) men and women which give us all the information we could wish for, in a logically reasoned context. I read these in my research and for fun. Some of my readers go to such sources when aspects of my story have piqued their interest. But the novel is not a learning tablet. It’s not a proper place for these chunks of information.

Novels are about the dilemma and intricacy of human relationships. They are about the impact of events on the human soul. They are as intricate as a ticking clock and reverberate with the challenges of crossroads and paths not taken. They make a virtue of surprise and a vice of what is left unspoken. This is as true of novels labelled historical as it is of more contemporary novels where the motivations are perhaps more familiar.

And if this is what women write and women read, fair enough. I love my readers. (In passing, it’s worth noting that are very good male writers who share these ‘womanish’ traits – E M Forster and Ian McEwen come to my mind at this moment.)

I’m delighted to say that I do get nice letters from male readers - some say my novel was lying around because their wife or sister had it in the house – who seem to get what I am about and don’t worry that I omit 'important' information about the particular spec of the warships during the fall of Singapore, or the savage technicalities of crime in 1960s London.

I wouldn’t have brought all this back to mind had I not had that delightful afternoon in Blyth.

Thank you for that, Peg.


Tuesday 10 November 2009

Fifteen Steps to Writers' Heaven at Whitworth Hall.

I often say that the only thing writers have in common is that they write. They are wonderfully various – committed, funny, serious, Whitworth 012 obsessive, original, bitter, manic in turn.

I spent last week-end surrounded by them at our first Room To Write conference at Whitworth Hall, a gorgeous small hotel in the middle of a deer park. The RoomToWrite idea was inspired by our own experience and that of a the number of writers we’ve met who say if only I had the time… or if only I had the space…

What, said Avril, Gillian and I , if we provided the place and inspired the writers to clear the time? Then we could provide something that might just change an aspiring writer’s life.

So we –and these fourteen writers – had two (very) full days thinking, talking, reflecting on writing - particularly long original writing. We talked about observation, about engaging the senses in one’s writing, about developing characters, about the daunting task of Whitworth 015 conceiving and tackling the architecture of the novel. We talked about how we need to change our reading habits and begin to read as a writer, admiring the skills of good writers and incorporating some of them into our own writer’s skill-set.

The setting was beautiful and the Saturday morning was Whitworth 009brilliant – flat autumn sunshine catching raindrops of the recent rain; fallen leaves soaking to darker brown in the grass. So the Fifteen Steps Exercise, invented by Avril and myself proved to be inspirational.

This was the Fifteen Steps brief:

Walk for half an hour and every fifteen steps stop, make a close observation and add to a list in your notebook(no sentences – words and very short phrases please). Move close in where necessary. You can note a tiny detail like the trembling of a leaf, or a large event - like deer cantering towards you or the sweep of the clouds in the sky. Whitworth 011 Remember to use all five senses. You may wish to take the opportunity to use metaphor and simile. Come back and write for half an hour, a piece of prose based on your list, perhaps with some allusions to your current big writing project.

The writing that emerged was exceptional – particularly so with people who were writing outside their normal comfort zone. And we remarked that the Fifteen Step Method could be used to great effect in a city market, in a factory, at a railway station, on a wild estate. It is not confined to a beautiful deer park.

And the writers were spoiled! The Whitworth people were splendid - the working lunches, afternoon teas, the breakfasts and the dinner were extra special. The highlight was the Saturday evening where four eminent authors dined with us, and shared their insights and experiences with these new writers. The beautiful room buzzed with talk and laughter.

They say the bedrooms were lovely too. But I ran home to my own bed late on Saturday night only to get up again at the crack of dawn recharged, energised for another great day.

One of many good bi-products of the week-end was the sense that friendships were being made here, that mutual support was being fostered in this good atmosphere – the breaking down of that sense of isolation that many of our writers mentioned in their first notes to us.

And they are so kind! A sample from Monday morning’s mail…

Dear Wendy, Avril and Gillian… What can I say? The weekend was wow!! Thank you all so much for your wisdom, imagination and attention to detail….It is Monday morning now and I wish I was still with you all in that lovely room! Jackie x Whitworth 014

Whitworth 020

Dear Gillian …Just a short email to convey my great appreciation to you, Wendy and Avril for running such an inspirational and well organised week-end; it was incredibly informative, yet great fun for everyone who attended. Michael

Whitworth 021 Dear Wendy, Avril, Gillian, RoomtoWrite proved spacious - capacious, palatial, expansive,open. And every other meaning of the word…Thank you for a really memorable weekend. All the expectation boxes ticked and all due to your hard work and commitment and plain willingness to not spare yourselves to make it a success….It was good to meet other like-minded folk in such a lovely place and learn from the interaction. I like hearing other people read their work - Can't wait for March. Thank you all very much … Erica

Whitworth 018They say organising writers is like herding cats. So I thought you might like to see Gillian, who organised us all with subtle elegance throughout this fascinating weekend.

What more is there to say?


Just – as Anne urged – that there will be a RoomToWrite ‘booster charge’ in March 2010, and another full conference in November 2010.

Everyone out there is welcome as long as the list holds out …

Post Scriptum: This came from Erica Yeoman who was there…

Whitworth Hall Fifteen Steps

Hazel brown nutcase open

Seed gone

Rock hard protection obsolete now.

Green lichen softens the fallen branch

Cold ,damp whiff of decay

But lingering sweetness.

Steps, leaf-strewn, Like thick rug waiting to trip


Down to cupola' Elegant relict.

Wrought iron swirls

Pattern the sky

Capping the tapered columns.

A cold stone bench

Holds crinolines and jean-covered legs.

A low November sun filters

Seen and not felt

Unlike the figures that tread

As light as the deer

Poised and arrogant.

A sudden sound breaks their nonchalance.

When it has passed

The animals strut again.

Disturbance is but season change

Summer yellow rose

Protests its permanence.

Yet the petals will fall into place

Optimism, inbred knows

Come next year it will flower again.

Wednesday 4 November 2009

Morning Creativity and Dreaming Up Projects

I love those times in the morning when my mind wakes up before my body. In those long minutes my mind is full of words. Sometimes the words are thoughts about the novel I’m working on, decisions made. I asked myself this morning whether Starr, dripping wet now in her Pentecost clothes, should go back along the canal to the boat, or walk up into the town to the Maison d’Estella. I decided on the latter

Sometimes the words are actual prose that might go straight into the novel. Fire. Water. Darkness. She wondered vaguely of this was what death was really like. That went straight into the draft. Sometimes I hear dialogue - Starr talking to young Thibery; Modeste talking about his cures; the way the Empress addresses Starr. I hear not just the words but the register in which each person speaks. Of course this all gets into the draft and is developed as the story evolves in a more conscious daytime mode.

The temptation here is to say that I am in a trance at htat time of day and that I am in mystic communication with my characters. More probably I've been imagining characters and inventing so many stories for so long that a special bit of the brain is hyper-efficient and supple and works on my stories in the night.

But this process does not just apply to stories. It applies to articles and other prose stuff that might be preoccupying me. It also crucially applies to projects that I dream up and put into action.

A propos - apart from the above interventions, story making has been somewhat left behind this week as there are two huge projects to preoccupy the sleeping and the making mind: the Easington Tall Tales Project Project and the Room To Write Weekend

The Easington work is coming on a storm – sixty thousand words of stories and poems invented and created by the Easington writers in response to the inspiration of that amazing area, that wonderful community and that unique culture. Looking through the work I can see the enormous progress the writers have made in these months and I wake up thinking the book emerging from this work will. in its own way, be groundbreaking. So sometimes I wake up literally hearing the stories of Susan, Chris, Mavis, Agnes, Joan. Terry, David and Mary in my head.

This week Avril and I have been reviewing images to go in the book with artist Fiona Naughton, who has spent days across at Easington looking, noting and photographing. And then days at home drawing and painting possible images for the book. She spent one good day with Mavis Farrell (a member of the group and herself a photographer) as Mavis knows all the secret places important to some of the stories. So now I am waking up with images of a possible book cover in my head and pages of great prose counterpointing Fiona’s sensitive drawings and dramatic photographs.

So tomorrow (Thursday) in the group we will review all their work and finally choose a title. Avril and I think that a title should emerge from the range of poems in our collection. Some great words there. Perhaps I will wake up in the morning and see the cover illustrated by Fiona’s painting of the coastal path by the beach, complete with the title (whatever it may be) subtitled by Tall Tales from Easington Writers …

And the Room To Write Weekend? Well I've been dreaming and thinking and planning that for nearly a year now. And now it's imminent. My feeling is that with all this thinking and dreaming and planning it could be a success, not least because it’s the work of three dreamers - Avril, Gillian and Me.

I will post all about that here after the week-end - there could be lots to say….



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