Monday 26 May 2014

I wish I could recognise the songs of birds.

At 4am from my bathroom window I can hear the dawn chorus streaming from the trees around the house. One bird in particular sings a long sweet song which seems to have no end. In my imagination this is the nightingale from the fairy story. But not that even I imagine I am an Emperor.
The Black Writing Table 
And the birds begin again in the afternoon, calling from the trees and sometimes fluttering to the bird table, then veering off at the last moment like a World War 2 bomber.They must be put off by me, sitting writing at my black writing table.

A woman with short hair passes the gate and catches sight of me. She doesn't swerve away like the birds. She catches my eye.  'It's quite a haven here, with all these trees in the middle of the town.' she says.

I nod. ‘Quite a haven!’ 

I show her the wash of bluebells, a little blowsy now, past their best, at the bottom of the garden. ‘It’s because this is all ancient woodland’ I explain.
Jasmin's Archie Among My Bluebells 
‘The bluebells and the yellow aconites come and come, again. They spread and spread. Even if you leave a patch in the cultivated garden the bluebells sprout where they haven’t come for twenty years.'

The woman nods, sharing my sense of surviving magic for a split second. Then she tells me she’s looking at a house further along the little road. ‘This is really quite a haven,' she says again.

She seems like a nice woman. Sounds Antipodean. She strolls off and I return to my black table and my pen and book. And I still listen to the birdsong, more subdued now as the day moves on to a close.

Friday 23 May 2014

The Re-emergence of the Lilac

The lilac has re-emerged.When we first came to this house thirty years ago there was a great hedge of Victorian lilac before the front door shielding the house from long side view of the garden. with its tall trees underpinned by bluebells and the long, somewhat unkempt, bank cluttered in summer with yellow aconites, forget-me-nots. and  buttercups raising their heads above the wild grass.

Eager beavers, we took down the hedge and opened the view and planted a perennial border. I did feel pangs of regret when eventually we lost all sight of the lilac.
The Lilac in Blowsy Effusion 

But now after thirty years I see the lilac has re-emerged, sprouting blossom in all directions with blowsy effusion . At the front door now I am invaded by a deep smoky scent reminiscent of antimacassars and old wax polish.
The lilac must have been playing doggo underground for a generation and has now re-emerged, treating me to a bright splash of lilac in the slanting afternoon sunshine.

I have been thinking now that the lilac will continue to re-emerge long after I am gone, just as it sprouted long before I came here to this house.
Not that I regret the long border...

Wednesday 21 May 2014

Ghosts in my Back Yard

I often feel ghosts around me.  As I lounge
Perfect Design 
 on the couch reading a book I sense people coming through the door with the edge if my eye. I feel the ghosts inside me as I go about my daily life mimicking repeated gestures and actions from a thousand years of imprinting.

I planted new plants in my high walled my back, now a sheltered space for drinks around the table and modest barbecues. Not wanting my plants to dry out I unwind the hose and water my plants. Then I use the hose to swill the old blue cobblestones, laid there when the house was built in 1870. A perfect example of functional Victorian design, these bricks are in varying shades of blue and grey. They are laid in a brick pattern towards a central line which is laid the other way, making a perfect channel for dirty water to swill down the drain.

In no time the yard is shining clean, clear of all the compost and the detritus of weeding. My plants are looking perky. 

Herb Corner 
As I wield the hose and the yard brush I am  filled with the ghost of another woman with brawny arms: the queen of the back regions of the house, who has her own back staircase which she climbs at night. up two flights  to the attics where she lives in her designated space.
Looking perky 

Tuesday 20 May 2014

Work In Progress: Older Women in a Public Garden Café


This is the lair of intelligent women
Older, greying, so well seasoned
Their talk will be intelligent - 
Books, films. exhibitions
The scandal of the stolen girls
The regretted reversal of liberation
The universal objectification of woman
The looming presence of  our politics in the world
Always vindicated by the very best of good intentions
They sympathise with oppressed populations
But still they are loyal, mourning our boys -
Unemployed, enlisted, sacrificed

Tuesday 13 May 2014

Writer Interviews: Kitty Fitzgerald - Wonder Woman of Writing

Kitty Fitzgerald seems to be the the Wonder Woman of  modern fiction - multi-skilled and always open to experience.

 She has written four well-received novels and has been published in 20 countries. The most famous is Pigtopia (Faber) which made her a finalist in the fiction section of the Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers’ Awards. Tt was also a stunning radio play. Her latest novel is Identity (Room To Write)  a complete revision of her first novel Marje  first published to great feminist acclaim. Kitty calls it a psychic thriller and is pleased that it was the first feminist thriller to give a first person voice to an incest survivor.

She has also written four radio plays for BBC Radio 4; eight theatre plays, and one screenplay – and has had several writing awards.Kitty was also centrally involved, with Peter Mortimer in his 2013 highly successful award-winning  Iron Age Arts Festival. I also know Kitty to be committed to social and political issues

As I said A Wonder Woman of Writing.


So, Kitty, What is the primary joy of writing in your life?


When I first started writing - in my early thirties - it was like coming home and I knew then that this was what I had to do. After many jobs and later a good degree as a mature student, I thought I was going to be an artist. I enjoyed painting and making collages but when I began writing it was a different experience; instead of feeling relaxed, as I did as an artist, I was focused, feverish and often euphoric. It was as if I’d tapped into a different part of my consciousness.

I do indulge in distraction activities, like many other writers I know, but I think it’s now all part of my process and when I am ‘ready’ to write I get on with it on a daily basis for as long as it takes. I find first drafts painful, a bit like extracting teeth, but I love the editing process and have to be careful not to overdo it.

Completing a long piece of work gives great satisfaction. Holding a new book of mine in my hand is wonderful and it reminds me there’s nothing else I’d rather do

W. When did you first know you were ‘a writer’?

K. I had some fantasies about it while I was at school but I was told I was aiming above my station. Later, when I did my degree in my late twenties, it was my English tutors who encouraged me to write. I entered a short story competition and was one of the winners. The writer-in-residence who judged it, also looked at other work from the winners. I had started a novel and had about 5000 words to show him. He told me he thought I was a novelist and encouraged me to finish the novel I’d started.

I took a job as Head of an Art dept and saved up for a year before leaving the job. I got an evening shelf-filling job, which allowed me to write during the day and be when my daughter and partner came home. He subsidized me for that year and the result was the first draft of my first published novel, Marge (1984 Sheba Feminist Publishers). At the end of that year, I knew I was a writer and I would do it for the rest of my life.
That was thirty years ago.

W. You write novels, short stories and plays of radio and stage.  How do you approach these different forms of writing. Do you look for different outcomes?

K. They are all quite different and require me to put on different heads. The structures are different; the amounts that have to be carried in your head are different and the subject matter is usually different.

I know before I begin that there will be different outcomes; that is, I know from the start whether I’m writing a story, a play or a novel and proceed accordingly.
However, once in a while an idea goes through several manifestations. Pigtopia is a perfect
example: it began as a short story, turned into a radio play and became a novel…because I hadn’t finished with it, there were other avenues and angles to be explored.

The story was third person; in the radio play, I couldn’t find the main character’s internal voice, so I could only create the words that he actually said and in the novel the main character was first person. So you see you can create many structures and working practices but every so often a character comes along that frustrates all these plans.

W. What would you say characterises the themes in your novels?

Probably the notion of outsiders, of people living on the edge. One PhD student who studied my work suggested I was haunted by the notion of a Trinity. And in much of my writing I can see what he meant but it’s a subconscious pull and I’m often surprised when I’ve finished a first draft to see that it’s trickled back in again.

K. Well…I was born in rural Ireland and surrounded by an extended family for which attendance at Mass was second nature and I went to Catholic schools when we migrated to England – when Churchill was looking for a labour force to help re-build Britain.
When I was four we lived ‘in digs’ with a landlady who had been forced by the coal board to use her spare rooms for lodgers.

We were an Irish family but the others were all single men: Bozo was from Yugoslavia, Tonio from Italy, Franky from Poland and Scotty from Glasgow. We had one small downstairs room with a double bed for mum and dad and a horsehair sofa for me, the others shared two small rooms upstairs.

We were all outsiders and ignorant of how the system worked. The landlady took all our ration books and fed us slops; she also stole our money but nobody was interested in helping us. Digs were hard to come by: it was the time of no blacks, no Irish no children. But a fellow miner at the pit told dad about elderly neighbours of his who might take us in.
And they did. Mr and Mrs Higgs were as wonderful as our previous landlady, Violet Bunce had been terrible. But I knew at five years old what it was to be an outsider.

W. Do you have a writing routine?

K. Yes, I usually start writing around 11am and with breaks can work up to 9pm. I read and edit what I wrote the day before and then continue. I aim to get around 2000 words under my belt by teatime and then revise up to 9pm. Sometimes particular pieces of music are important to the process but not always. I can’t start a piece of work – no matter how long I’ve been researching or carrying it around in my head – until I hear the voice of my main character inside my head. Then I decide on First/Third person, Tense and so on.

W. What role does editing play in your writing process?

K. It’s a huge part of the process and for me, crucial. The good thing is that I love doing it. I do lots of drafts working between the computer and writing by hand. As an editor, it’s the most common problem I encounter: not enough editing. I’m guilty of lapses, just like everyone else but I’m better than I was.

What is the best advice that you have received about your writing and who advised you?
I was told that when I finish a good first draft of a piece of writing, I should put it in a drawer and not look at it for a couple of weeks. That way I’ve got more chance of coming at it as a reader, rather than the writer and will edit more objectively. I can’t remember who gave me the advice.

W.What advice would you give to writers in the first stage of writing their novels?

K. Another piece of advice I came across: write with passion, edit with reason.

How long does it normally take you to write a novel? Has this changed?
If I can engage with the writing full time – e.g. I’m not having to go out to work to earn a living – I can get a good draft done in a year. Pigtopia was the exception to this: that took five years because of the experiment with language and making sure it was consistent. Jack’s inner voice was hard to find.
I used to take longer because I was tentative when I first started.

W. Do you think the short story has a real place in the life of a career writer?

K. As a novel writer, I enjoy working on a short story while my latest draft is in the drawer and I
may go back to stories many times before achieving a good full draft. But it’s a break from having to carry a whole novel around in my head.

W. What are you working on now?

K. I’ve just finished a new thriller, which is with my agent, so I won’t say much about that but I’m also working on a Young Adult novel set in the future, which has a lot to do with dogs!

W. Tell us about your latest published novel.

K. Identity has just been published by Room to Write. It is a revised edition of my first novel, Marge, which was published by Sheba Feminist Publishers in 1984. It’s a psychic thriller and was the first feminist thriller to give a first person voice to an incest survivor.

W. What, for you are the best characteristics of a good editor?

K. The intention to make the work they are editing the best it can be, rather than trying to turn it into something else.

W. Do you think it’s possible to edit oneself to good effect?

K. I prefer to have someone I trust to be honest to read the first and some later drafts. As with proofreading, it’s easy to miss things when you are familiar with the work.

I still see myself as a bit of an outsider but I’m also a dreamer and basically an optimist, even though I can sometimes get depressed at the state of the world. I identify myself as a writer and feel very lucky to have discovered that aspect of my character. I always try to do too much, too many things, but regular yoga, walking and cycling, helps both my body and mind to relax. I love my family and my close friends. I am both a good collaborator and sometime who likes to spend a lot of time alone. There is no such thing as retirement for a writer and I hope I pass away with a pen in my hand.


Monday 5 May 2014

Short Story Competitions: Fixated on Anecdote

 At a recent workshop a writer told me that she’d had a story rejected with the comment that it was merely an anecdote. In our recent podcasted discussion (see below) Avril Joy said to me that one problem was that some writers were fixated on anecdote.

This made me think. I suppose it all depends on what we mean by ‘story’.

We all live inside a web of stories. We learn our family histories going back more  than two generations through the stories that come down to us. This will weave its way into our fiction whether we do it consciously or not. I discovered this when I sat down to write my memoir The Romancer and discovered in retrospect that I could trace many of the themes and  much of the texture of  my novels in story- or anecdote -driven  elements of my own life.

Such stories from life might well be labelled anecdote. I call these fireside stories and would link them with fairy stories and spoken sagas coming down through history.  I feel it is natural that writers, when they begin and cast around for a ‘story’, will make use of such anecdotes – and quite right too.

However when we are writing a story that will stand alone as true fiction, the familiar anecdote can only stand as one element, as one strand of certainty which might give the fiction authenticity.

Our story becomes literature, it becomes fiction, when we take liberties with it, when we play about with the probabilities, when we invest it with imaginative insight and set our fantasies flying.

It becomes fiction when we strive to meet the challenge of finding the precise, right words to express the action, the setting and the atmosphere of this new story which will take wings and make for the writer and the reader a new literary reality.

It becomes fiction when we shape it with elegance, when the story arc is taut and true. Interestingly enough part of that truth can be the anecdote - the fireside story - that first inspired the writer to take the leap into fiction.

Having just launched our Room To Write Short Story Competition we are hoping the some of the entries will be taut and true and the same time great fiction.

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